Virgin Galactic christens terminal ‘Gateway to Space’ (Photos)

The Montgolfier brothers had Paris. The Wright brothers had Kill Devil Hills. Today, Richard Branson can officially call the New Mexican desert ‘home’ for his burgeoning commercial space line.

This morning, Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, and Richard Branson welcomed guests inside Spaceport America, to commemorate and christen the Spaceport’s main Terminal Hangar Facility as the ‘Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space’.

In front of a crowd of 800 journalists, future astronauts, and team members responsible for the design & construction of the VSS Enterprise, the spacecraft made a ‘captive carry’ fly-by with mothership White Knight II, before landing on the 10,000 ft. long runway and docking outside Spaceport America’s 47,000 sq. ft hangar.

As flight tests ramp up toward a speculative launch date in 2012 or early 2013, the Spaceport will now serve as the home base of operations for those working to make Virgin Galactic a reality; a date that for some, can’t come soon enough.


Over 400 passengers have already put down a deposit of $20,000 toward the $200,000 ticket price to be among the first tourists to venture into suborbital space. For these future astronauts, the experience is much more than just taking a trip to space.

At events like the one today, it’s a chance to network and be a part of an elite group that is helping Branson write the next chapter of aviation history. In some ways, it’s the ultimate traveler’s club – a chance of a lifetime for those that can afford to join. Future passengers from all across the globe come to events put on by Virgin Galactic to mingle with former NASA astronauts, politicians, and the Branson family.

Branson’s hope is that it won’t be long before tens of thousands of ordinary humans brave enough to make the trip will be able to afford the flights; and he will have helped forge an entirely new tourism industry.

When operations commence, which could be as soon as 2012 or 2013, passengers will go through a three day training experience at Spaceport America. They’ll undergo g-force testing, weightlessness simulations, and health checks to ensure that they’re fit enough to make the trip to 361,000 ft. Once aboard the 6-seater craft, they will experience up to 4g’s as they rocket toward an apogee inside the thermosphere, before experiencing up to 5 minutes of weightlessness.

There is still much to be done before the passenger experience in New Mexico is fully worked out, but Branson promises that it won’t disappoint. While Galactic has yet to prove itself as a full-fledged business, their customers are excited and there is a sense of enthusiasm from the company as they continue to expand an already impressive list of staff members.

The date on which we’ll witness a powered flight is still uncertain, but it seems as if Branson is determined to keep passing milestones on the way to the history books at a very steady rate; and now with a new home for Galactic, the only way forward is up.

Virgin America launches real-time deals with Loopt

Virgin America launches real-time deals with LooptVirgin America, the airline that always seems to be on the cutting edge with in-flight entertainment and passenger satisfaction, is launching a new initiative to keep customers happy before they even board their flight. Virgin America’s new program “VX Deals on the Fly” has it teaming up with the mobile check-in company Loopt to offer deals at the airline’s hub at San Francisco International (SFO).

To unlock real-time deals, passengers at SFO must use Loopt to check in at T2, the spanking new Terminal 2 where San Francisco-based Virgin America is an anchor tenant, then watch a short video about the terminal’s modern and sustainable design. “A Day in the Life of SFO’s T2” does an excellent job of making the airport almost as inviting as the onward destination. [Watch it here.]

VX Deals on the Fly range from discounts at restaurants and shops within T2 to deals on Virgin America flights. Here’s a full list of VX Deals on the Fly available through December 22, 2011:

  • Cat Cora’s Kitchen: a complimentary dessert when you order two tapas.
  • Kiehl’s: Two complimentary product samples.
  • Natalie’s Candy Jar: 15 percent off discounts on bulk candy.
  • Napa Farms Market: $1.00 off TCHO chocolate bars or Napa Farmhouse marmalades.
  • Hotel escape offers from $315 through the Elevate® loyalty program’s partner Morgans Hotel Group’s Boutique and Lifestyle Hotels, including Clift in San Francisco and Mondrian in Los Angeles.
  • Car rental: $15 off your next green car rental at SFO.
  • Virgin America: 10-20 percent off last minute travel discounts as well as random two-for-one and free flight offers for future trips.

Yes, that’s right. Checking in at T2 with Loopt could possibly land you a two-for-one flight deal or a free flight from Virgin America. To learn more about VX Deals on the Fly, visit the Virgin America and Loopt websites.

Russian firm reveals plans for a “space hotel”

space hotel

The newest hotel plans in development are far out … literally. Russian firm Orbital Technologies revealed plans for a space hotel at a conference in Moscow this week. The hotel has a predicted 2016 opening, the Daily Mail reports.

Initial data suggests that a five day stay will cost around £100,000, not counting transportation costs of £250,000+.

The “hotel” will be “far more comfortable” than the International Space Station, says Orbital CEO Sergei Kostenko, and will feature seven guests in four cabins. The hotel “pod” will occupy 706 cubic feet and feature massive windows 217 miles above earth and be accessible via Russian Soyuz rockets.

Beds will have a horizontal or vertical option as well as sealed showers.

“Our planned module inside will not remind you of the ISS,” Kostenko said. “The hotel will be aimed at wealthy individuals and people working for private companies who want to do research in space.”

Kostenko aims to have his project finished before that of Virgin exec Richard Branson.

What do you think? Would you visit the space hotel?


50th Anniversary of Space Travel: What's Next?

Exploring Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic

The first time I met Richard Branson we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, he was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.

I think of that scene whenever he announces he’s setting off on a new adventure – whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of this month, one-man submarine. While exceedingly bold, maybe even brave, I’m not convinced technology is his strong suit … which makes me a bit worried when he announces he intends to go deeper below the surface of the ocean than any man or woman before, to explore the bottoms of the five oceans.

His $10 million “Virgin Oceanic” is the continuation of a project begun by Branson’s friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet … perhaps simultaneous to the date sometime later this year when his “Virgin Galactic” rockets its first paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.Nothing Branson sets out to do is small. He’s become the Steve Jobs of high-end adventure in that it seems anything he proposes is quickly bought up by wealthy folks who would follow him anywhere. His attitude is equal parts measured and cavalier. “I have a great difficulty saying no,” he admits. “Life’s so much more fun saying yes.”

The Deepflight Challenger was built by the leader in sophisticated submersibles, Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, CA, and is the brainchild of renowned ocean engineer and inventor Graham Hawkes. Branson intends to use the 18-foot-long, 8000-pound craft in what he’s calling the Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project, hoping to take it to the deepest point in each of the five oceans. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs have signed on to support the scientific efforts of the team, which will study marine life, the tectonic plates and help Google Ocean map the ocean floor in 3D.

Hawkes has also constructed submarines for upcoming explorations of the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, and a multi-year ocean expedition led by venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

“I love a challenge,” says Branson. “When I learned that only one person had gone below 18,000 feet under water and the sea goes down to 36,000-feet, it seemed to unbelievable. And talking to scientists and finding out that 80 percent of species on earth haven’t been discovered yet – that’s unbelievable. Knowing there are thousands of shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea that never have been discovered is pretty good fun as well.”

Searching for gold-laden Spanish galleons could be another part of the adventure, as is setting records. In the spirit of Fossett – who loved setting records and owned 115 when he died– the dives will include setting 30 Guinness World records. It is hardly a risk-free adventure. A leak or engine malfunction at depths where pressure is 1,000 times normal would be catastrophic, for both man and machine.

They hope the first of the Five Dives explorations will take place as early as this summer when explorer Chris Walsh captains the sub to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, more than 30,000 feet below sea level. Branson intends to captain the next trip, to the bottom of the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench, a mere 25,000 feet below.

The other three areas to be explored are the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean (26,041 feet), the South Sandwich Trench in the southern Atlantic (23, 737) and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean (18,399).

The carbon fiber and titanium submarine should be able to go 7 miles below the surface of the sea and be on its own for up to 24 hours, though the hope is that each trip to the bottom, and return, will take no more than five hours. Its ‘wings’ will essentially allow it to ‘fly’ over the ocean floor collecting data.

Before each dive remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) will be sent down, armed with bait, to stir up marine life, which will be filmed by the submarine that follows.

Branson already owns a three-person version of the sub, also built by Hawkes – the “Necker Nymph” – which he rents for $2,500 a day at his private Caribbean island resort.

“This experimental trip to the bottom of the ocean could lead to bigger crafts,” says Branson. “We’ve coined the phrase aquanaut – anyone who goes below 20,000 feet – there’s only one person at the moment and it would be fun to make as many aquanauts as there are astronauts.”

Branson is familiar with adventuring risks. In 1972, marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles to shore when his boat was swamped by 10-foot waves. In 1977 he was the first to try flying a kind of tricycle with wings and managed to land it after soaring hundreds of feet off the ground; its inventor was killed a week later doing the same thing. He’s been nearly killed skydiving and rappelling down a Las Vegas hotel and plucked from the ocean on numerous occasions when his balloons went down.

When we traveled together in the Arctic, Sir Richard (only his mother still calls him Ricky) told me about getting lost in the north woods of Canada when one of his ballooning adventures went awry. “We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, ‘Well, this is Canada … you could be in any of ten thousand places.’ ” A rescue chopper picked them up eight hours later.

Such luck won’t be an option at 25,000 feet below; if something goes wrong down there he better have packed an extra set of wings.