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UPDATE | Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its planned commercial spaceflights later this year, partnering with NM Hotels on the ground.
Astronauts will stay at the Hotel Encantado de Las Cruces in New Mexico as part of the multi-day experience, which includes a tour of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship factory in Mojave.
PREVIOUS | Sir Richard Branson expects Virgin Galactic to begin commercial spaceflights next year – carrying passengers who've paid as much as US$250,000 each for the privilege.
Earlier this year Branson pegged December 25th as the launch date for Virgin Galactic's first service with paying passengers, saying "I will be going up on the first flight, which I hope will be about December 25th of this year" said the Virgin-branding billionaire, "so maybe I'll dress up as Father Christmas."
But while the British billionaire looks set to stay grounded this Christmas, 2014 could prove the year that his ambitious space programme finally takes wing.
The first flights will last for two and a half hours and include four minutes of weightlessness as the eight-seater shuttle nudges the edge of space at some 360,000 feet above the Earth's surface.
Each booking doesn't just secure your spot in the queue – you'll also enjoy a series of special events leading up to the launch, including spending time with Branson on his private island, doing G-Force training at the NASTAR centre plus a 'behind the scenes' tour of Virgin Galactic's Spaceship factory in Mojave.
However, the real prize for Virgin Galactic is moving beyond 'space tourism' for the well-heeled, towards scheduled services which will be to this generation (or the next) what the supersonic Concorde was to the 1980s and 1990s.
Branson believes that trips between London and Sydney taking a handful of hours would be possible in his lifetime, with Virgin Galactic expecting to eventually offer five commercial flights a day.
How Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital flights work
Virgin Galactic's space carrier is an aircraft in two parts, with the 'White Knight Two' transporter cradling the smaller 'SpaceShipTwo' passenger craft beneath its wings.
White Knight Two, which is smaller than a Boeing 737, lifts off from a normal runway and climbs at subsonic speeds to 50,000 feet (just over 15,000 metres).
At this point SpaceShipTwo -- half the width of the 737 and only 18 metres (60 feet) long – detaches and fires its own boosters to soar to 110,000 metres.
At this height, with the atmosphere becoming thinner and friction from air decreasing, the passenger shuttle can hit speeds of 4,000 km/h before turning off its engines, coasting along near the rim of space and gliding down to earth.
(The White Knight Two carrier vehicle has long since headed home to pick up its next cargo.)
Sydney-London in four hours: the Kangaroo Route in 2050
As nice as 'space tourism' is, the real prize for Branson will be a return to the superfast era of the Concorde – only this time even quicker, with scheduled sub-orbital shuttles to whisk you from Sydney to London in four hours.
As previously reported by Australian Business Traveller, Brett Godfrey – former founding CEO of Virgin Blue, long-time Branson buddy and holder of a ticket into space – believes that sub-orbital services will be "the next level" beyond supersonic, with substantial appeal to business travellers.
"In another 10 or 15 years it will be $20,000 – it will be no more than a first-class ticket somewhere" Godfrey said, "and then eventually they will be able to get a slightly bigger rocket with a bit more fuel and they'll be able to get it so it goes trans-continental and then around the world."
"It may not be in my lifetime that it goes commercial but I think it probably will."
With London and Sydney being just over 17,000 km apart, SpaceShipTwo travelling at 4,000 km/h and the earth far below spinning at 1,700 km/h, that's almost exactly three hours from Sydney Harbour to the Thames.
Add half an hour for liftoff and half an hour to glide down, and you turn the long-haul Kangaroo Route into a breezy four hour hop – less time than it currently takes from Sydney to Perth.
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