Israelis signing up for Virgin’s commercial spaceflights

The Israeli branch of Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Galactic Dreamline, has already sold an undisclosed number of $200,000 tickets to Israelis.

By
May 6, 2011 03:58
4 minute read.
CEO Eliron Yaron with Branson (L), Rutan (R)

Galactic Dreamline 311. (photo credit: Virgin Galactic)

 
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The heat insulation problem that led to the deaths of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and six colleagues from NASA in the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 has been “solved” by a newly designed tail, making the first commercial sub-orbital space flight – scheduled in 18 months – much safer.

The Israeli branch of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Galactic Dreamline, has already sold an undisclosed number of $200,000 tickets to Israelis. Worldwide, 425 have already been sold.

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The out-of-this-world opportunity is expected to find a market among major companies that want to show gratitude to employees who have made them fortunes and are regarded as deserving of the hugely expensive, two-and-a-half- hour experience. But there will be no flight attendants, food or drink, or even a toilet, as passengers on SpaceShipTwo will spend only five minutes in actual spaceflight. The rest of the time will be used to rocket 110 kilometers heavenwards and come back.

“Anyone who cannot hold on without a bathroom should wear adult diapers,” Eliron Yaron, CEO of Tel Aviv’s Galactic Dreamline, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. In fact, adult diapers may be needed, as 60-year-old British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson will make the trip along with his parents, Edward James and Eve Branson, who are in their 90s.

Yaron said that in addition to the astronaut pilot, there will be six passenger seats. When they are in space, they may unbuckle their safety belts and float inside the craft, taking photos with their cameras.

The technical problem that felled Columbia was the ceramic tiles meant to insulate the shuttle from the heat buildup caused by re-entering the atmosphere. Some had been dislodged during launch, and Columbia disintegrated.

Since then, aviation designer Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites have been working hard in the Mojave Desert in New Mexico to develop a safer way to prevent heat buildup.

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According to Yaron, Rutan’s solution was recently proven successful during tests in New Mexico. Although he’s not a scientist, Yaron says he knows a lot about the project and expects to go on one of the early commercial flights.

Instead of tiles, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise has a special tail made of composite materials whose angle can be readily shifted so that during re-entry, the friction will be diverted, explained Yaron. Thus, the spaceship will be light, save fuel, pollute less and be much safer without having to worry about protective tiles. When preparing to land, the pilot will be able to move the tail as in an ordinary aircraft.

Seven years ago, Rutan’s SpaceShipOne was awarded the $10 million Ansari X Prize for its ingenuity.

“The shuttle traveled at 28,000 kilometers per hour, while we will travel suborbitally at lower speed,” Yaron explained. “ The maneuverable tail, just a few meters long, is reusable.

“This really advances us closer to commercial flights,” he said, adding that some wellheeled Israelis, including company owners who want to hand out tickets as a bonus for special workers, are very interested in the service.

“The proven success of the wing brings us a giant step ahead,” he declared.

A $500 million “spaceport” is now being constructed in New Mexico, having received encouragement from former governor Bill Richardson.

“It will be the first commercial, private airport to space,” Yaron told the Post.

While no life or accident insurance will be available for the first commercial flight of SpaceShipTwo, said Yaron, it is expected to follow later. But, he said, it will be no more dangerous than many other activities on Earth.

“Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927, didn’t have any insurance either,” he said.

“And using a skateboard is also risky. Risk is statistical; life is dangerous as long as you live. We don’t think it is any riskier than ordinary things in life.”

When they land, passengers are likely to be offered expensive champagne and presented with an “astronaut’s ring” to show off. They will not need a protective spacesuit or special breathing equipment.

Virgin Galactic is building a fleet of five space vehicles and is planning two flights per day.

The astronaut pilots “do not work for NASA; we are more advanced than the space administration. NASA consults with us!” said Yaron.

So that critics cannot claim there is no purpose to the flights beyond allowing passengers to boast, Yaron disclosed that scientific experiments will be conducted during the flights, such as examining the behavior in zero-gravity of pharmaceuticals.

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