SAN JOSE, Calif. — Within a year or two, the number of humans who have been to space may double, says William Pomerantz of Virgin Galactic, the company who hopes to make that happen.
Sometime in 2014, entrepreneur Richard Branson and his two children aim to be on the first commercial flight of SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galatic's rocket for propelling eight people 100 kilometers above the Earth.
The flight will be broadcast on live TV, "so it has to be safe and fun," said Pomerantz, who is vice president of special projects for the company. "If Sir Richard is bored or looks uncomfortable, that’s not good for business," he quipped in a talk here hosted by National Instruments.
SpaceShip Two is carried to 50,000 feet on what looks like two planes fused together.
The moment may mark another milestone in the commercialization of space. To date, 542 people have been in space. Virgin has sold 660 tickets at $250,000 each, for its three-day experience which culminates in a two-hour flight, about four minutes of it floating in microgravity.
"I grew up watching NASA astronauts fly, so I would have thought there would have been multiple zeros at the end of this  number by now…[but] it's hard when everything is custom and a launch only happens once a year," said Pomerantz.
"NASA did amazing things, but they didn’t do them very often…[in part because] the cost of failure was a congressional investigation and a decade long review," he added.
Virgin hopes to get its 660 ticket holders into space within two years, and is already working on follow ups to the current SpaceStation Two design. It was created in collaboration with Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites that designed SpaceStation One, the winner of the Ansari XPrize for the first commercial space flight in a reusable vehicle.
The new version, finished 18 months ago, is now doing test flights. It looks like two planes, each with its own cabin, holding the rocket like a third cabin between them. It takes off from a Virgin site in New Mexico and climbs to 50,000 feet.
The plane then releases the space vehicle which plummets for about three seconds before it engages its rocket for a 6G acceleration to about 3.5 times the speed of sound out and up into space. Once it reaches peak altitude, pilots shut off the rocket. It descends as a capsule for several seconds. Then wings deploy, the rocket reignites and propels the vehicle to a landing back at the New Mexico facility.
"We've take a lot of pains to see both wings are actuated by the same mechanism, it's fairly redundant and surprisingly low tech," he said. "Scaled Composites is willing to go low tech" to be practical, "they are not in to technology for technology's sake," he added.
"Clever engineering solutions make sure passengers are in the right orientation [when in capsule or airplane mode]" so they generally are facing the G forces that "won't last long and should feel fun, like spots car ride and not a risk to you," he said.
Long term "Sir Richard's ultimate interest is not going straight up and down but going from say, San Jose to London in 45 minutes -- that’s a much harder problem to solve, but we are learning about it in bite-size fashion," he said.
So are regulators. "Since we are doing this for the first time, the FAA requires us to educate customers and tell them risks and how we mitigate them," he said.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times