Once a week at dawn, C.J. Sturckow guns a blue Extra 330SC stunt plane into the pink sky above the Mojave Desert. At 14,000 feet, the 5-foot-9 former NASA astronaut starts doing his "card" – a checklist of rolls and spins meant to simulate spaceflight's G-forces. White-knuckling the plane's joystick, he exerts nearly six G's on his body, enough to drain the blood from his brain until he nearly "grays out." "When I first started doing it," he says in a Texas accent, "it was a little nauseating."
Getting used to the G's is part of the top-secret training Sturckow, 52, is undergoing at Virgin Galactic's remote facility in Mojave, Calif. For years, Virgin's billionaire founder, Sir Richard Branson, has been bankrolling a 255-person crew of the world's top pilots, engineers, physicists and designers to produce the first commercial space line – and he isn't alone. At least nine global companies are working to offer private spaceflight, and they are attracting a growing number of NASA astronauts and technicians now that the U.S. shuttle program has closed.
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Forty-five years after Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the future of space travel is finally edging closer to reality. Here are five companies working on engineering future cosmic flights.
Founded by serial inventor Elon Musk, the California company ultimately wants to help people establish colonies in space. It is building its own reusable rockets and space capsules that will one day take people to other planets, beginning with Mars. SpaceX just successfully launched its first commercial satellite on Dec. 3. The launch heralded the company’s move toward adding more commercial space flights to its existing slate of partner missions with NASA, helping it supply the International Space Station in the post-space shuttle era.
Ticket price: $500,000
Launch date for tourists: Not yet determined
No company has received the scrutiny of Virgin Galactic, with a blond-maned founder who has been making headlines for his celebrity passenger list (Angelina and Brad), the ticket price ($250,000), and the constantly delayed launches (he said the first flight would take place on this coming Christmas Day before pushing it back yet again).
But while Branson has claimed for nearly a decade now that he is this close to sending tourists into space, he finally seems to be ready. In September, Virgin Galactic rocketed its VSS Enterprise higher and faster than ever before – the ship flew 69,000 feet into space, breaking the sound barrier before gliding back to Earth. Afterward, Branson stated that the launch is "on track for 2014."
On paper, the Enterprise's flight is straightforward. The ship is strapped beneath a twin-fuselage jet, flown up to nearly 50,000 feet, and dropped. It then turns on its rocket and soars straight up at 2,800 miles per hour to 68 miles above Earth – the very edge of what we call space. After a few minutes in suborbit, it falls back to Earth, using a patented feathered-wing system – the wings on the tail rotate 65 degrees, allowing the plane to fall like a giant shuttlecock. The whole trip lasts two hours, with four minutes of weightlessness at the top of its arc.
Already, about 700 people have bought tickets to fly aboard the Enterprise once it launches. These early adopters are invited to periodic events hosted by Virgin Galactic – debriefings at Branson's own Necker Island, flight tests at Mojave, and training on a Philadelphia-area centrifuge to ensure they can handle the flight's massive G-forces. At the spaceport, passengers will spend three days undergoing medical checkups with NASA-trained doctors, learning how to fly in zero gravity and getting briefed on the mission. "You're basically a speeding bullet," Enrico Palermo, a Virgin vice president of operations, says about the flight intensity. "You're going faster than most humans ever will."
Ticket price: $250,000
Launch date for tourists: currently slated for 2014
This private, Mojave-based company is the closest competitor to Virgin Galactic. Its two-seat Lynx suborbital spaceship is the size of a private jet, can launch from a runway, and will make several space trips per day. The descent will be a glide-and-circle pattern – picture a corkscrew – to ease its reentry through the atmosphere.
Ticket price: $95,000
Launch date for tourists: Within two years
Founded by the computer-game entrepreneur John Carmack, the Texas company will one day take travelers aloft in a vertically launched rocket ship.
Ticket price: $102,000
Launch date for tourists: Not yet determined
Boeing Crew Space
With backing from NASA and the Virginia-based Space Adventures (the company that books billionaires on Russian-spaceship trips), the commercial aircraft giant has built a mock-up of a U.S. space capsule that may one day take tourists to the International Space Station.
Ticket price: Reportedly up to $40 million
Launch date for tourists: 2015