When Atlantis came back to Earth last July, marking the end of the U.S. space shuttle program, many lamented the passing of NASA’s big-dreams era. The cover of The Economist even went so far as to proclaim “the end of the space age.” But that’s about as far from the truth as Earth is from Mars. We are in fact at the dawn of what might be called Space Age 2.0, in which private citizens will soon be making regular flights to suborbit. Many would therefore argue that the seminal event in spaceflight last year was not the final mission of Atlantis but the continuing evolution of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s two-pilot, six-passenger spacefaring rocket ship.
Evolved from a smaller rocket craft designed by aerospace guru Burt Rutan that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, SS2 will whisk paying customers 65 miles upward, giving them a brief period of weightlessness, a taste of the black void of space, and a fantastic view of the curvature of the planet.
The rocket ship achieved a critical milestone in May, when its unique “feathering” system was deployed for the first time above the Mojave Desert in California, flawlessly bending the ship’s tail nearly perpendicular to the fuselage in a maneuver that turned the craft into something like a badminton shuttlecock. Virgin Galactic says feathering will dramatically lessen the turbulence associated with reentry into the atmosphere, delivering a ride that the company hopes will be both smooth and safe for the 455 people who have plunked down deposits for $200,000 tickets to fly aboard the first space airline, possibly as early as 2013.
Virgin Galactic’s mastermind, British billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, is just one of several wealthy swashbucklers plunging into space: PayPal’s Elon Musk and Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos are aiming for other segments of the private spaceflight market, including transportation of astronauts and cargo to the still-active International Space Station. But Branson’s venture is the splashiest, and its craft stole the space show this year. “What an awesome way to start the day,” a company official tweeted. “SpaceShipTwo looked positively beautiful today on her maiden feathered flight!”