My Ticket Into Space Looks Cheap, Price Soars to $250,000

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Photographer: Virgin Galactic via Bloomberg

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will fly at three times the speed of sound to nearly 400,000 feet above the Earth, giving passengers the title "astronaut."

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Photographer: Virgin Galactic via Bloomberg

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will fly at three times the speed of sound to nearly 400,000 feet above the Earth, giving passengers the title "astronaut." Close

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will fly at three times the speed of sound to nearly 400,000 feet above the Earth,... Read More

Photographer: Mars Scientific.com/Clay Center Observatory via Bloomberg

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert in April. This was the first time the rocket motor was fired in flight, taking the craft supersonic. Close

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert in April. This was the first time the rocket motor was fired in... Read More

Photographer: Jim Clash/Bloomberg

A patch shown here was flown aboard SpaceShipTwo on April 29, 2013, the first supersonic (Mach 1.3) full-rocket-motor test of the craft. One was sent to each Virgin Galactic ticket holder to mark the milestone event. Close

A patch shown here was flown aboard SpaceShipTwo on April 29, 2013, the first supersonic (Mach 1.3) full-rocket-motor... Read More

Photographer: Jim Clash/Bloomberg

The view from a MiG-25 fighter jet at 84,000 feet. The Earth's curvature and blackness of space are evident. SpaceShipTwo will take passengers to four times this altitude. Close

The view from a MiG-25 fighter jet at 84,000 feet. The Earth's curvature and blackness of space are evident.... Read More

Photographer: Space Adventures via Bloomberg

Author Jim Clash weightless in an IL-76. The aircraft performs parabolic moves in flight, allowing passengers 30 seconds of weightlessness per parabola. Close

Author Jim Clash weightless in an IL-76. The aircraft performs parabolic moves in flight, allowing passengers 30... Read More

Photographer: Virgin Galactic via Bloomberg

Mothership WhiteKnightTwo at Spaceport America. WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo aloft, then drop it from about 50,000 feet. Close

Mothership WhiteKnightTwo at Spaceport America. WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo aloft, then drop it from about 50,000 feet.

Photographer: Virgin Galactic via Bloomberg

Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson stands with Burt Rutan, builder of SpaceShipTwo. The men are pictured with scale models of SS2 and WhiteKnightTwo in the background. Close

Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson stands with Burt Rutan, builder of SpaceShipTwo. The men are pictured with scale... Read More

Photographer: Virgin Galactic via Bloomberg

The newly built Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic plans scheduled flights from there as early as 2014. Close

The newly built Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic plans scheduled flights from there as early as 2014.

Photographer: Brian Binnie via Bloomberg

The view from SpaceShipOne in 2004 is similar to what SpaceShipTwo astronauts will see. The price of a ticket has gone up to $250,000. Close

The view from SpaceShipOne in 2004 is similar to what SpaceShipTwo astronauts will see. The price of a ticket has gone up to $250,000.

Three years ago I bought a $200,000 ticket to fly into space aboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

I chose the “poor man’s” option, which requires only a 10 percent deposit. Three months before I fly, I will raid my 401(k) for the remaining $180,000 balance.

So I won’t be among the first bunch of 500 fliers including Justin Bieber and Formula One legend Michael Schumacher who, according to reports, paid for their tickets up front.

Virgin Group chairman Branson and his family will board the very first commercial flight. He has suggested that could happen as early as Christmas. As passenger number 610, I’ll probably get my turn in 2015.

A milestone was reached in April when for the first time in flight, Virgin Galactic lit the rocket motor on SpaceShipTwo, sending the craft supersonic.

Capitalizing quickly, Branson raised the price of a suborbital space ticket by $50,000 to $250,000 (we early purchasers still get the original price).

The new development has potential space tourists’ hearts ticking faster. It’s been a long wait -- nearly nine years -- since the smaller craft, SpaceShipOne, went on its history-making voyages. Yet rockets are unpredictable. In 2007, three workers were killed by an explosion on the ground while testing an early version of the SS2 engine.

Mid-Air Jettison

Whereas SS1 could carry three people, SS2 can manage eight: two pilots and six passengers. Like SS1, it will fly aloft on the underside of a mother-ship, WhiteKnightTwo. At 50,000 feet the craft will be jettisoned, then fire its rocket engine.

Boarding SS2 doesn’t require special training. All you need are money and guts. That said, to get the most out of the flight you might want to familiarize yourself with the disorienting effects of high altitude beforehand, especially when your time in space is costing thousands of dollars per minute.

“You’re riding a rocket motor,” cautions astronaut Brian Binnie, who piloted SS1 to win the Ansari X Prize in 2004. “There’s a lot of noise, vibration, G-forces -- and you are saturated by that.”

Other than a three-day orientation program in New Mexico just before your flight, VG doesn’t have its own official space prep program but does recommend a flight simulator/centrifuge experience at the National AeroSpace Training and Research or NASTAR center, in Southampton, Pennsylvania.

I wanted real space-flight experience, too -- or at least something as close as I could get to the real deal.

Cold War

First up was a MiG flight. Since Concorde’s operations ceased in 2003, the highest folks can fly commercially is in old fighter jets. I headed to a Cold War-era air base near Moscow for my adventure.

Once I was strapped in, the MiG-25 quickly took my pilot and me to 30,000 feet. As we accelerated through the speed of sound (about 750 mph) there was a slight disturbance, then the ride became spookily smooth. I began to feel the G-forces. A tiny tape recorder I was holding felt like it weighed 10 pounds.

At 84,000 feet, the sky overhead was black, and a diffused blue hue covered the Earth’s curvature. The world stopped as we hung in the heavens. Just as suddenly, we were in a disorienting dive, stabilizing again at 30,000 feet for aerobatic maneuvers.

Back on terra firma, the ground crew said we’d climbed 16 miles and hit Mach 2.6 -- all in a half an hour. In SS2, I will go even faster -- exceeding Mach 3 and travel four times as high.

Zero Gravity

As intense as the MiG flight was, I did not experience weightlessness. For that, I needed a separate venue.

Russia uses cargo planes to simulate the experience. An Ilyushin Il-76 climbs to 35,000 feet, then goes into a controlled dive for 30 seconds. In that half-minute, fliers are weightless. The plane pulls up at 25,000 feet and climbs again. Passengers alternate between the weightlessness and ascent phases.

Convinced I had to use force, I pushed off as we went into our first dive. A few moments later my head banged the ceiling. When weightless, one learns immediately that brute strength is not needed -- and there’s no way to correct mid-air.

I pulled a bottle from my pocket and opened it. The water dispersed in ball-bearing-sized blobs. It was good fun, but by the last of a dozen parabolas everyone was feeling nauseous.

Centrifugal Force

Having done my training, I’m nearly ready for the rigors of SS2. I still plan to experience the NASTAR centrifuge before the year is out.

Could an early accident derail later excursions like mine? In discussions with Branson and SS2 builder Burt Rutan, the feeling was that if it’s something identifiable and can be prevented with a logical fix, it won’t have a big impact. But if the problem is more systemic, it could be much more challenging.

An analogy is the early airline industry where mishaps were part of progress. Look at the business today. In fact, many say VG’s ultimate suborbital space model is a Concorde on steroids where a flight between, say Sydney and Los Angeles, would take just a few hours compared with current 18-hour commercial flights.

This fall, VG has a ticket-holder event scheduled at Mojave Airport. The company is cagey about what’s planned, though this writer is hoping for a test flight of SS2 all the way to space. If that occurs, you can be sure the line of would-be astronauts will suddenly grow. Glad I have my ticket.

To purchase a VG ticket: virgingalactic.com. Zero Gravity Corp. (gozerog.com) runs weightlessness flights ($5,000). MiG flights ($20,000-up) are offered via Incredible Adventures (incredible-adventures.com). For centrifuge/flight simulation ($3,000), try NASTAR (nastarcenter.com).

(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Catherine Hickley on German art, James Clash on adventure, James Russell on architecture and John Mariani on wine.

To contact the writer of this column: James M. Clash at Jamesmclash@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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