Going on a Space Holiday


Apart from missile system exhibits (destined for Olympic tower blocks, I expect), one of the biggest buzzes at the Farnborough Air Show this year is about Space: Russian, Chinese and Virgin Space.

I was watching the quickening rush hour at Waterloo station en route to that ark of aerospace, when a large man sat down next to me: White stubble, white trainers and even whiter socks with a sky blue air show lanyard around his wide neck. This, he was very quick to mention meant he was a Virgin Galactic astronaut: ‘I’m from Vegas .. in automobiles’.

It has been 5 or so years since the Guardian Weekend writer Simon Hattenstone and I witnessed the unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo space vehicle in New York. Speaking with some of the first paid-up Virgin Galactic customers, we sniffed discontent between the space pioneers. Who would be on the very first flight? Would the Branson family or worse, red carpet celebs jump the queue? The original Buzz – Buzz Aldrin – was there too to talk of final frontiers and distant neighbours.

Ron, my platform bench companion sipped his vento and calmly announced that he, he was to be on one of the first flights. He was a Founder, he continued – one of the first 84 to sign the Galactic contract. But he’s had to put his life on hold. It has been 8 years ago now when originally, he thought it would be 3 before he could float free from his buckle for the few precious minutes of orbital sightseeing. Handing over his $200,000 he still doesn’t know exactly when he’s climbing the galactic stairs, whether he will have a pressure suit or oxygen at his feet – or if SpaceShipTwo’s composite bodywork will come apart mid-flight.

As worrying for him and other citizen skyriders is the prospect that family members will be too close, too distracting when it matters most while mingling at the New Mexico Spaceport hours before the flight, when the nerves and doubts really kick in. Space for tourists is still a big unknown and official answers can be hard to come by.

Some appear to have already pushed their own envelopes. Ron once went to the old Soviet republics armed with handfuls of $100 bills to pay for $6,000 flights in old Migs whose instruments didn’t work. He has also tested his body to discover if the g-forces that SpaceShipTwo imposes on his bulky frame won’t induce an embolism. He’s done the centrifuge thing and I imagine his Action Man figure spinning around inside a roulette wheel, suppressing a gut full of Starbucks. Space for tourists appears to be a physical gamble too though that didn’t stop Colonel Aldrin walking over the Sea of Tranquility when his habitual unit consumption was legendary.

Mingling in the hall with the cosmos club at Virgin’s corporate announcement yesterday, there didn’t seem to be a stereotypical Virgin punter. Some were already flagging but many others looked the right side of 40.

Per Wimmer looks like a young NASA graduate in bio-sciences but is actually a self-made magnate of the Virgin mould, another of the Founders who hopes to become the first Dane to enter space. The CEO, adventurer, global financier, entrepreneur, adventurer, pioneer and philanthropist’ who has already tandem skydived over Everest, is currently distracted at having his Titanic dive postponed by the Russians.

Edwardian travellers on the grand tour managed at most to climb Giotto’s bell tower of  the Duomo in Florence and maybe a daring dip in Lake Como. Tourists these days with swelling heads and purses can go to the lowest and the highest places on earth. They have an urge to enter orbit for a brief holiday with an obssession for photocalls.

So far there have been 528 humans who have gone beyond the Ionosphere and although the new breed of aeronauts have little in common with Buzz or Yuri, cult Branson have just cashed the cheque of their 529th day-tripper.

One fortune, two signatures and you too can call yourself Spaceman. Amen


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