Looking out the window, what would I see?
We will likely be flying downrange a couple of hundred miles instead of going straight up and down like we did with SpaceShipOne. So the view will depend on where you fly. The photographs of space taken by our astronauts have been published all over the place. But the eye is a much more dynamic mechanism than any camera or pictures. It’s a more exciting view in person than looking at the photographs. Of course, I personally am sick and tired of hearing people talk like that: I want to see it myself!
How will passengers prepare for flight?
We will use the launcher [the airplane used to carry SpaceShipTwo to high altitude] to simulate the reentry. By doing a descending return [with SpaceShipTwo still attached to the launcher], we can actually expose the passengers to high reentry g-loads and also give them a real experience of what this gentle and slow buildup of g’s during reentry is like.
I think during your day or two of training, you will likely go up in the launch airplane and do some floating around in the cabin. You’ll do it in the same seats and windows in the cabin that you’ll go up in. I think you’ll be able to just show up at the spaceport and training facility two or three days before your flight.
Will passengers on SpaceShipTwo be able to take pictures?
I don’t think you’ll want to. I think there will likely be video cameras mounted in the cabin taking pictures of you. I say you won’t want to take pictures because when you go to the Grand Canyon, you walk out to the guardrail and look out there. You usually don’t approach with your camera in the on position and walk up and take a picture. You usually see people enjoying it with the best lenses we have, which are our eyes. Then before leaving, you take some pictures so you can show your friends at home.
The problem with a suborbital spaceflight experience is that it is relatively short. You would certainly be taking snapshots if you were spending a couple of weeks in a resort hotel on orbit. But for suborbital flight I think it will be better if the pictures you see are pictures of you watching, documenting your experience. It’s something that will be automatically done, rather than you fumbling with your camera.
What do you say to those who argue that what you’re doing is not really contributing to space exploration, it’s just providing expensive entertainment for the rich?
Look at personal computers or how the Internet grew: Something done for fun turned out to be as necessary as electricity and water. It’s because creative people saw what was there and discovered a better use for it. I think we will find that if we reach our goal of flying 100,000 people in the first 10 or 12 years on SpaceShipTwo, along with others out there with their different spaceships, you are going to get some unforeseen creativity, someone who will figure out something as important as the Internet.
What are the most difficult technological bugs facing you in the development of SpaceShipTwo?
If I told you that, it would be very revealing to my competition! I would love it if Jeff Bezos [the founder of Amazon.com and Blue Origin, a rival spaceflight company] came out and told me the two most difficult things about developing his suborbital ship.
Do you have any advice for someone coming out of college who wants to design spacecraft?
I would say that you don’t have to be stuck working for NASA anymore, and that is good news. When I got out of college, America built and flew into space five different launch systems in seven years. We’re now talking 13 years to do one launch vehicle, and it’s going to be based on hardware that is 30 and 40 years old. So my advice would be, let’s just hope that there will be a bunch of companies like mine developing new rocket launchers, spaceships, and boosters, like we did in the ’60s. I personally think there will be a lot of jobs.
Is there a private space race going on?
Of course there is; the biggest competitors are the Russians. Just like in 1961 with Gagarin, the Russians have beat us on the first salvo with Dennis Tito [the world’s first space tourist]. Who would have thought in the 1960s that the first capitalists to sell tickets to let the public fly would be the damned Russians? Who would have thought that? Doesn’t that piss you off? Well, we’re going to do something about that.
Who are your competitors?
Virgin Galactic, which will be operating SpaceShipTwo, will be only one of several spacelines. The competitors for Virgin include the Russians, Bezos’s Blue Origin, and possibly Rocketplane Kistler. And likely a couple of others who are smart enough not to tell people what they are doing!
What will spaceflight look like a century from now?
A century is a relatively short period of time. Let me stick my neck out a little bit further and say that in 300 or 400 years, a large majority of people will go to a planet and not return back to the Earth. We will colonize. Lewis and Clark went out and back. But most of the people who followed them went to California and stayed there. In a hundred years, I believe you will see such an enormous reduction in the costs of transportation around our solar system that there will be a lot of travel. I’d like to see affordable transportation into space in my lifetime.