NAPLES — No light. No sound. No weight. Just space.
Bold adventurers with deep pockets have within their reach five minutes free from the bounds of Earth on SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galactic’s newly unveiled commercial space ship.
More than 300 people have secured their place in line to become space tourists for $200,000 a pop.
“They watched the 1969 moon landing and somebody told them one day they would go to space,” said Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn, who wowed Naples crowds at the Community School of Naples on Thursday and the Forum Club of Southwest Florida on Friday.
The space ship unveiled Monday will undergo an 18-month test program and will need approval from its Federal Aviation Administration regulators before commercial flights take off.
Still, Whitehorn is convinced commercializing space will not only provide once in a lifetime opportunities bit it will be invaluable to science, cargo transport and global travel while freeing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from launching satellites or carrying astronauts to the Space Station.
“I have the hugest respect for NASA but it needs to get back to the exploration of space,” Whitehorn said.
The space ship made entirely of carbon composites is cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly than NASA’s shuttle, he said.
Virgin Galactic’s $450 million price tag is an astronomical figure, Whitehorn said, unless it’s compared to a single shuttle launch at $1 billion. It’s environmental impact is that of one business class ticket from New York to London while the Space Shuttle’s is that of a 1-kilaton nuclear explosion.
And SpaceShip Two doesn’t have the risky task of blasting into space from the ground.
SpaceShip Two is docked beneath its mothership, WhiteKnight Two and is released and launched mid-air. Upon reentry, it transforms its shape to drop through the atmosphere easier and then resumes its glider shape to land.
The ship will carry six passengers and two pilots. The mother ship will carry scientific research in one hull and the next day’s astronauts who will train in the other.
Virgin Galactic plans to carry 700 into space each year and its early customers range in age from teenagers to a 91-year old-man who has had heart surgery.
Some Forum attendees Friday questioned the project’s safety and wondered if a catastrophic accident could kill the project.
“Safety is the North Star of the whole project,” Whitehorn said, adding that an accident early in the effort could ground the ship, but an accident say ten years in could be overcome.
But Whitehorn isn’t planning on any accidents.
“This will be safer than driving a car down I-75,” he said.
Mary Ann Ramsey, president of Betty Maclean Travel, is one of about 40 agents taking reservations for the Gulf Coast’s future astronauts. She said about 20 customers have expressed interest but none have placed a deposit.
Forum Club guest Charles Strasser. who lives on Marco Island half the year and has flown his own planes for 50 years, was impressed by Whitehorn’s project but he had no interest in becoming a space tourist.
“I’m 83 years old,” Strasser said, “I’ve already climbed all the mountains I want to climb.”
For Michelle Hurtley, just hearing about the project was exciting.
“Our children, our family, is very tech-oriented,” she said. “We have always been interested in space.”
She and her husband served in the Air Force and her son works in the Air Force’s Space Command security.
For her, this privatization of space is the right step.
“Innovation always has to be private,” Hurtley said. “It can’t wait for government because there’s no competition.” Her 13-year-old son Jacob, a member of the Civil Air Patrol, said he wouldn’t mind taking a seat on SpaceShip Two.
“Maybe if it gets affordable enough,” he said.
After five or so years of successful commercial flights, Whitehorn said the price could come down to about $90,000.
Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/