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Welcome to the Real Space Age


Upstairs is Mission Control, which overlooks the giant runway. There is a room for medical evaluations and another room for suiting up (the space suits will be skintight, with curved helmets shaped like alien heads). There is a special “astronaut elevator,” reserved for ticket holders, who will ride down, say good-bye to their families, and then exit a giant rear door and climb inside their rocket plane for the two-hour trip.

I wondered: Who are these future astronauts? Wincer likens the situation to the old cell phone, “a Motorola brick,” which took ten years to develop, cost nearly $4,000 to buy, required ten hours to recharge, and offered 30 minutes of talk time—and yet “thousands of people put their names on a waiting list to buy one.” Virgin’s customers are similar: early adopters with abundant faith. Some are wealthy and famous, like Russell Brand, Ashton Kutcher, and Victoria Principal; others are mortgaging their houses to afford the trip. There is Wally Funk, a 74-year-old pilot who trained as one of thirteen women during the early Mercury flights but never had the chance to fly. Together, the Virgin ticket-holders are from more than 50 ­countries and range in age from 18 to 83. Some have died waiting (one in a skiing accident); others have pulled out for financial reasons (one was a Bernie Madoff ­victim). People who drop out pay a cancellation penalty.

Wincer is frequently asked if customers can bring children. Several parents have attempted to give flights as sweet-sixteen birthday gifts; one customer, she said, “at the moment is desperate to let her 12-year-old fly.” The FAA had yet to address such questions, and Wincer sees it as a matter of informed consent, of which she thinks a 12-year-old is not capable. Many customers have their own private pilot’s license, and many others are scared of flying or small spaces. She had just read a profile of one client who is terrified of roller coasters: “Jesus,” she said. She imagines there will eventually be two main constituencies: financially secure thirty- and fortysomethings and “retirees who are like, Screw the inheritance.” She predicts the market will expand substantially when people begin seeing “the slightly normal, slightly overweight person go first.”

Virgin Galactic expects its customers to be “of reasonable health.” Some who have applied are badly ill, space being something of a dying wish, and Wincer said these cases will be evaluated individually with input from a medical team. I asked about drug testing and the possibility of someone panicking. They were still working through this, she told me, though they hope the vetting and preflight training will weed out most problems. Still, Wincer is trying to think of everything. She has raised the question, for instance, of where people at the spaceport will smoke. Her colleagues have fought her on this—there can be no smoking anywhere—and she agrees that this is best, but she also knows from her experience in luxury tourism that “no” is not an answer. She anticipates there will be all kinds of personalities, including bored relatives, waiting back at the spaceport while their loved one is in flight, “like, doing coke in the bathroom.” Some have inquired about having sex in space; she has reminded them there will be a crew and four other passengers. (Though, ever accommodating, Virgin Galactic does offer charters and even a discount: six seats for a million dollars.)

We were standing outside now, as Wincer smoked a Marlboro Red. I wondered whether she wanted to go. She recalled a moment when she was a very young child, in the bathtub, and her mother handed her a bubble-bath bottle shaped like the Saturn V rocket. Later that night, her mother pointed to the moon outside. Wincer grew up assuming that visiting space “would never happen for a person like me.” Now she was planning to join other Virgin employees in early test flights.

There was a breeze, and the building looked magnificent. Standing there, it was hard not to think back to when man first tried this, in the first Mercury flights from Cape Canaveral. Legendary NASA flight director Gene Kranz later remembered how shocked he was to arrive on the launchpad, how “stark, awkward, and crude” the spacecraft looked, “a large black-and-white stovepipe atop a simple cradle.” Now, only 50 years later, there was a commercial spaceport with Virgin Galactic as its anchor spaceline, somewhat like what Delta is to La Guardia or United to Newark Liberty.

“It’s all part of a bigger journey,” Whitesides had told me back at the hotel. In the history of mankind, 531 people have visited space so far. “We have 540 people signed up today,” he said. “We’ll fly those in the first year of operation.” In less than a decade, Virgin will have flown tens of thousands of flights and, in so doing, “fundamentally recast human beings’ relationship with the space frontier.” Within ten years, he foresees so-called point-to-point space travel. There will also be ramifications closer to home; a flight from New York to Tokyo will take 45 minutes. Current plane rides “will be like the buggy,” he said, “like going from New York to London in two weeks.”

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