Richard Branson Officially Makes History with Virgin Galactic’s Space Jaunt

Remember six years ago when Richard Branson unveiled his plans to make Virgin the first commercial airline in outer space? We all kind of laughed, thinking he was crazy like Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary, who wanted his flight attendants to double as co-pilots. Anyway, Branson made us all look like idiots yesterday—10/10/10—as one of his aircraft left our hemisphere—sorta and briefly.

The VSS Enterprise was released from its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at an altitude of 45,000 feet, just on the edge of space. It didn’t exactly hit zero-gravity, but flew in glide mode for about 15 minutes before touching down safely on land. Both planes were manned by pilots. It was a test-run, aiming basically to achieve a clean release from the mothership, and for the pilots to free fly, glide, and land.

Why is realizing the geeky fantasies of an eccentric billionaire important to the travel industry? VSS Enterprise is a commercial ship, meaning that the 370 customers who put down deposits of $200,000 each back in 2004 will most likely see their dreams of going into space become a reality. Save your Sigourney Weaver jokes: this is kind of a big deal. Set your DVRs for next Monday, when National Geographic Channel premieres an exclusive documentary on Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic’s mission.

Crazy Rich People Getting Closer to Space

Exorbitantly priced private space travel is closer to being a reality for a very, very small number of people! Late last week, a private spaceship built for rebel billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic made its first crewed flight. Don’t get too excited, though. The spaceliner didn’t go to space — it just cruised over California’s Mojave Desert.

Named the VSS Enterprise, the spaceliner flew for just over six hours, according to a Virgin Galactic statement. During the flight, two crew members evaluated systems and functions and not crashing and all that. As planned, the spaceship remained attached to its mothership, VMS Eve, for the entire flight.

If and when the Enterprise goes into space, it will first fly attached to the mothership to about 50,000, where it will then launch, its rocket engine propelling it 60 miles into space. Passengers will be able to see the curve of the earth and experience zero gravity.

According to the Virgin Galactic website, over 340 “Virgin Galactic astronauts,” aka people who are dropping $200,000 for space travel, have signed up for a spin on the spaceship. Future astronauts must put down a $20,000 deposit. Test flights of the VSS Enterprise are expected to continue through 2011.

Space Travel Succumbs to Recession Pricing

imagePrices are crashing everywhere in the travel world. Flights are cheap, hotels are cheap, even gas is cheap. And now, flights to are “cheap.” The first commercial spaceflights aren’t leaving the atmosphere until 2010, but already there’s been a 50% discount — $95,000 down from $200,000 per flight. RocketShip Tours is pushing this bargain deal, which includes a five-night stay at a luxury resort, complete training, medical evaluation and screening, cancellation insurance, and of course the flight itself.

RocketShip’s hoping to steal some business from competitor Richard Branson (surprisingly, not from Branson, MO) over at Virgin Galactic, who is still pricing his trips around $200,000. According to Jules Klar, head honcho at RocketShip, “Our goal is to make space travel accessible and affordable to those who aspire to experience the ultimate adventure. By reducing the cost of it by more than 50 percent, we think we have taken a major step toward accomplishing this goal.” The major difference (besides the price) between RocketShip and Virgin Galactic is that the RocketShip offers solo tours (seats next to the captain!), while Virgin Galactic offers group tours. What I want to know is if my frequent flyer points on Virgin America are good for the Galactic travel.

Celebrity Undesirables Bound for Space

Amid the lack of self-awareness plaguing the American celebrity elite, it’s refreshing to see Paris Hilton, Moby, and William Shatner properly motivated to reserve seats on Virgin Galactic’s first orbital leisure cruise, thereby saving us the labor of forcibly launching them into space. The trio are just part of a passenger manifest that includes over 150 others who have forked over about $200,000 apiece for said reservations — although as with all quality carriers, paying more gets you a better/quicker seat. With a scheduled departure slated for sometime in 2010, all celebrities have enough time to attempt a comeback before vanishing into obscurity, and quite possibly, the final frontier.