Virgin Galactic, the company that's working with physicist Stephen Hawking to get him into space someday, hails his better-than-expected zero-gravity flight as a significant step toward his goal. "We've still got a lot of work to do with Stephen, but this can only be good news," Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's vice president of astronaut relations, told me today.
As he discussed the next steps for Dr. Hawking's outer-space quest, Attenborough also touched upon the milestones ahead for Virgin's other would-be space fliers.
Virgin Galactic's list of passengers who have put down deposits for $200,000 suborbital tour packages recently passed the 200 mark, and Attenborough said the first 100 "Founders" (who have paid the full amount as a deposit) would be given the opportunity to take centrifuge spins late this year in preparation for their eventual flights.
Meanwhile, work on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane as well as the White Knight 2 mothership is proceeding "on schedule" at aerospace guru Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites shop in Mojave, Calif., Attenborough said.
"We're expecting to do the first 'unveil,' if you like, on those two vehicles towards the end of this year," he said. After the ceremonial rollout, test flights are expected to begin in 2008, with commercial service starting in late 2009. However, the actual schedule will be up to Rutan and his team.
"Burt's not going to hand this vehicle over to us until he would be happy to fly his children in it," Attenborough said. In fact, Rutan and Virgin's prime mover, British billionaire Richard Branson, say they intend to be among the first fliers, along with members of their families.
Attenborough noted the progress being made in New Mexico to prepare Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic operations in the 2009-2010 time frame, but said the first commercial flights were still likely to be based at California's Mojave Spaceport. "That's probably a likelihood from the information we have at the moment, in terms of spaceport completion date as well as spaceship completion date," he said.
As for Dr. Hawking, "it probably makes sense for us to fly Stephen as early as we can in the schedule, but we've got to get some information," Attenborough said.
He was impressed with the way Zero Gravity Corp. organized last week's flight. "They carried out a fantastic operation, better than anyone - other than perhaps Steven - thought," Attenborough said. "Clearly the lessons learned during that flight can be shared."
The medical data collected during Hawking's zero-gravity flight will likely give physicians more to work with as they consider how to accommodate the 65-year-old physicist on what's likely to be a more stressful trip to the edge of space and back. Attenborough said Virgin Galactic would probably want to fly at least some of its founders before putting Hawking on the passenger list - so that medical experts can gauge how customers tolerate G-forces as much as six times the force of Earth's gravity.
"There is very little data about the effects of these sorts of G-forces on anybody except the professionals," he noted.
Hawking's excellent adventure attracted attention from publications around the world, and from NASA as well. As NASA Watch's Keith Cowing notes, the event even spawned new Hawking video tributes on YouTube. Even the woman who paid $75,100 for two seats on the plane says she got her money's worth, "Rocketeers" author Michael Belfiore reports on Dispatches From the Final Frontier.
All this shows that the standard reactions to spaceflight are accelerated when you add a bit of celebrity - a phenomenon Hawking himself noted in comments reported via NASA Watch: "After 40 years of disinterest, space travel is finally coming back into the news."
One can only imagine what might happen if Hawking, or an icon of similar pop-culture adulation, actually makes it to space. For now, the best course is to take one small step after another, building on last week's flight.
"What was achieved was an important step," Attenborough said, "but an initial step."
Correction for 11:15 a.m. ET May 1: I originally quoted $250,000 as the cost for a seat on SpaceShipOne, but Virgin Galactic says that "tickets are starting at $200,000," and that the company "will seek to reduce this price as fast and as far as possible." I've fixed the reference - thanks to Garth for pointing that out. I've also added the note that Virgin Galactic's Founders have paid the full amount.