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Welcome to the Real Space Age

Now I was seated inside the cockpit of XCOR’s Lynx mock-up. (The real one was under construction in California and is scheduled to begin test flights in the second half of this year.) The instrumentation on the dash was fake, like the electronics in a room display at Ikea, and inside the plane smelled like an ­amusement-park ride. Valentine, chairman of the board of the Space Studies Institute, touted the Lynx as “one piece, gas and go,” carrying one pilot and one passenger in the cockpit, taking off and landing horizontally from a runway as frequently as four times a day. It was designed as a hybrid rocket and plane.

“This is the real astronaut experience,” Valentine said proudly. To date, 220 people have put down deposits for XCOR’s $95,000 ride, and Valentine talked me through the experience these customers can anticipate as soon as next year. There will be NASA-style g-force training and a NASA-style pressure suit. More than anything, there will be the view—a view that had eluded mankind until just 50 years ago, and one that only a few hundred people have seen in person: Earth. Space. And Valentine wanted me to know that his company’s would offer the superior opportunity. “This is a wraparound cockpit, with fifteen or twenty times the viewing area the Virgin folks get,” he said.

The flight itself will comprise a half-hour. The Lynx will take off with tremendous power, becoming supersonic a minute after ignition, reaching 190,000 feet within the next three minutes. Following engine burnout, its momentum will continue its acceleration through Mach 2 and Mach 3 and, finally, above 62 miles, the Karman Line, the somewhat arbitrary delineation of space, above which an aircraft must travel faster than Earth’s orbital velocity to generate enough lift to stay aloft. There, thinning atmospheric gasses diffuse blue wavelengths of light, creating a cobalt halo above the planet’s edge. It will hang momentarily before beginning its 25-minute glide back to Earth.

“It’ll be a helluva ride,” Valentine said.

Before Musk and Bezos and the ­others, there was Sir Richard Branson: white-blond-haired and ruddy, a first-­generation billionaire, the entrepreneur-adventurer son of a lawyer and a flight attendant who’d parlayed a mail-order record business into a music label into a transportation conglomerate and mobile-phone company, and who, in 1999, based on a lifelong love of space, parlayed all that into the beginnings of the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic. Branson says that his motivation for starting Virgin Galactic was “frustration”—personal, and on behalf of mankind. “Only a few people had been to space, and the government was not interested in you or I going,” he told me recently. Though he also admitted to other interests: “I’m in the airline business. I want to see our rivals’ face as we pass them in the air many, many times the speed of their planes.”

Getting there has proved difficult. First there was the issue of a spacecraft. On October 4, 2004, on the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik’s launch, a spacecraft financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen completed its second successful test flight to suborbital space in a span of two weeks and won the Ansari X Prize (the $10 million competition modeled after contests that had spurred Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic). Amid tremendous hoopla, Branson signed an agreement to make the vehicle Virgin Galactic’s spaceline. Flights were said to be imminent. They were not. In 2007, a rocket motor exploded during testing, killing three people. There were more delays. The public lost interest, and a pessimism took hold, a sense that commercial space travel would remain an Icarus-like farce. “There have been plenty of skeptics out there,” Branson said. “But we’ve got to a place now where there’s no going back.”

Virgin Galactic’s CEO is a 39-year-old American named George Whitesides, who I met one evening after ISPCS. The son of a legendary chemist, he is himself a nonscientist who decided to devote his life to space one night in Tunisia, while studying women’s rights in the Islamic world on a Fulbright scholarship, when he found himself walking on the shore of the Mediterranean beneath an impossibly starry sky. He’s worked for Virgin for three years—recruited by Branson from NASA, where he served as the administrator’s chief of staff—but has been a customer for almost a decade: He and his wife, self-described “space geeks,” were among the first to set down a combined $400,000 for Virgin’s then-rather-speculative flights. It was meant, even at the time, to be a delayed honeymoon. So how close were they now, I asked as we sat in the lobby of a hotel in Las Cruces?