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Thu 10 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

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Space man

The man in charge of Virgin Galactic's mission to send tourists to space discusses the company's plans.

The man in charge of Virgin Galactic's mission to send tourists to space, Will Whitehorn, speaks exclusively about the company's daring plans.

In 1969, the year man first landed on the moon, Will Whitehorn's mother told him that one day he'd go to space.

At the time anything seemed possible and the wide-eyed nine-year-old boy was convinced that he'd be following in the footsteps of his hero Neil Armstrong.

Today, 39 years later, he is planning to do exactly that.

I would say the biggest challenge of all was whether people would buy tickets. The ticket sales are ahead of what we expected.

"A lot of my generation were told that one day they'd go to space," he says. "But of course it never happened because the Space Programme just ran out of control with cost and safety issues. The chance that this might now happen is something I'm very excited about."

Virgin Galactic is probably the most ambitious venture ever launched by a single company - but if successful it could also be the most lucrative.

The concept of space tourism has for so long been the stuff of sci-fi movies that it almost seems fantastical.

But Virgin takes this project very seriously. Whitehorn says that so far around US$100million has been invested in Virgin Galactic and that it originally aimed for US$240million to be invested in the project in total.

The design for its two spacecraft SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are being finalised at a base in Mojave, California and already 254 tickets have been sold to members of the public willing to pay US$200,000 for their chance to travel to space.

"We've actually got 85,000 registrations and we've sold 254 tickets," says Whitehorn. "There is another US$36million on deposit from people who've reserved tickets. Our overall plan is that by the time we start flying commercial customers we have to have sold about the first year's worth of tickets."

Among those who have reserved their seat on the plane is of course Virgin founder Richard Branson who will be among the first passengers on the commercial flight alongside the designer of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft Burt Rutan.

But while Will is closer than ever to his dreams of space travel he knows there is much work to do on the project before it reaches lift-off.

So much so that Virgin is unable to give a deadline for the completion of the project - and anticipates that around 12 to 18 months of test flights will take place once the final designs for the spacecraft have been unveiled.

"This project is based on milestones of achieving various things, not based around a final start date, because no one has ever done a commercial certification of a human carrying spaceship with the Federal Aviation Authority before.

"We've got a very long and extensive safety orientated programme to complete. There will be up to 150 test flights. We are as confident as we can possibly be about the project."

And confidence is something Will needs by the bucket load. After all he is in charge of a project in which million of dollars has already been invested - but that is still years away from completion or even getting the green light to launch.

In order for the project to succeed Whitehorn and his team have to rely on the blind faith of customers and their willingness to buy into a dream - rather than (for now at least) a reality.

He describes this as one of the biggest challenges he has faced as head of the project: "I would say the biggest challenge of all was whether people would buy tickets."And we're feeling very pleased about that at the moment. The ticket sales are ahead of what we expected them to be at this stage."

Describing those who have booked their tickets to space, he says; "It's a really interesting variety of people. Everyone from entrepreneurs, bankers and scientists to film directors.

"It's about 60% men and 40% women and 40% of the customers who actually paid so far are qualified pilots."

There are also a number of famous names that have signed up including the actress Victoria Principal, the director of last year's Superman Returns film, Bryan Singer, and the professors James Lovelock and Stephen Hawking.

We believe that longer-term the system could be developed to transport people around the planet without having to use the earth’s atmosphere. So, for instance, you could travel from the UAE to Australia in two hours.

All Virgin Galactic passengers will be given just three days of training before taking off and will undertake medical assessments before being allowed to fly. Virgin's policy to make the flights as inclusive as possible.

The training so far has been extremely successful and it proved to us that 95% of the people buying tickets are going to be physically capable of doing it which is a much higher percentage than people thought beforehand," says Whitehorn.

"It is not very strict. Basically as long as you are healthy and you can be on medication then it is a fine thing to do.

"The main thing that would stop people doing this is a serious heart problem or a serious circulatory issue with their bloodstream," he explains.

But the possibilities for the Virgin Galactic project are not just limited to space tourism, reveals Whitehorn.

He says that in fact the technology that Virgin has invested in could be put towards scientific research in space and that the company is already in talks with NASA about ways in which this could be done.

"This is a system that has a number of really exciting possibilities," says Whitehorn.

"It can be used for space tourism but also for science in space and we're talking to NASA about an application to do just that.

"There's a whole set of experiments that currently go up on unmanned rockets to not very high altitudes into space.

"We could take over doing that at a lower cost. We could also launch lower earth orbit satellites with this system very quickly and cost effectively."

Perhaps one of the most exciting and most welcome uses of the technology however would be low carbon commercial air travel at lightening speed - effectively a faster and more environmentally friendly replacement for Concorde.

"We think that longer-term the system could be developed to transport people around the planet without having to use the earth's atmosphere," says Whitehorn.

"So for instance, you could travel from the UAE to Australia in two hours."And it would be much faster than Concorde which travelled at 1,400 miles per hour. This will travel at 3,500 miles per hour.

"It's also a very low carbon and low environmental impact system. The space rocket itself uses a very simple fuel made from rubber and laughing gas (nitra sulphide) and the aircraft or mothership that launches it is the most fuel efficient plane ever built."

Whitehorn's candid discussion of the technology behind the project and its potential uses in the future is a far cry from the secrecy surrounding the Russian and US space projects of the 20th century - one of the differences being that for now Virgin Galactic faces no competition.

We don’t anticipate a lot of competition. We think we’re at least five years ahead of anybody else.

In fact Whitehorn is confident that no rival will pip Virgin Galactic to the post.

"We don't anticipate a lot of competition. We've had one or two people who've announced they'd like to build systems to do this but they've haven't yet had investment to do so.

"EADS which makes the airbus has announced it would like to design a vehicle but it is yet to attract investment to it. There's a company in America which wants to build a vehicle but it has had no investment yet either. So we think we're at least five years ahead of anybody else."

Virgin is so sure of the potential of the project that it is already in talks with authorities in Sweden, the UK, Spain, the Asia Pacific and even the Middle East about building additional spaceports to complement its New Mexico base, once the flights are up and running.

Whitehorn reveals that the company sees particularly high potential in the Middle East - especially the UAE - where it believes there will be high demand for tickets.

The company is in talks with authorities in the UAE about setting up a spaceport somewhere in the emirates and it hopes to fly from there around two years after flights from New Mexico have launched.

"We have had a number of approaches but we haven't yet finalized any decisions or moved forwards on that," says Whitehorn.

"We'll be talking to both government authorities and aviation authorities."

He goes on to say that climatic conditions in the Middle East would be ideal for Virgin Galactic's flights: "There's good weather to operate all the year round. You get a spectacular view of both land, sea, sand, desert and mountain, which is quite a nice combination."

With international expansion plans already in the pipeline and hundreds of space tourists already signed up, it seems that the possibilities are endless for Virgin Galactic.

And if the project takes off it will be proof once again from Virgin that he who dares, wins.

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