Virgin Australia is offering its frequent flyers the "ultimate upgrade" with a trip into space aboard Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic airline spaceline. (Yes, that's an odd-sounding term but we may have to get used to it.)
A new promotion launching this week for Virgin's Velocity Frequent Flyer scheme will see one lucky traveller packing their carry-on for a 2.5 hour flight to the edge of outer space.
That experience will include four minutes of weightlessness as Branson's eight-seat 'mini space shuttle' reaches its apex at some some 360,000 feet above the Earth's surface.
To be eligible, Velocity members simply need to fly Virgin Australia between May 1st and June 30th, register for the contest "and outline what they would do for a seat to space", Virgin says. For more details visit velocityfrequentflyer.com/spaceclass.
Ready for lift-off
Virgin Galactic expects its first commercial spaceflight carrying paid passengers to begin in August this year, carrying passengers who've shelled out as much as US$250,000 each for the privilege.
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 (below).
However, the real prize for Branson is moving beyond 'space tourism' for the well-heeled, towards scheduled services which will be to this generation – or possibly the next – what the supersonic Concorde was to the 1980s and 1990s.
Branson believes that trips between London and Sydney would take a handful of hours, while a jaunt from New York to Singapore could take an hour "travelling orbitally around the world at 26,000 miles per hour", 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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