Meet Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic. The woman who teaches the super-rich to slip the surly bonds of Earth. And who also teaches them a little about the niceties of “adult undergarments” on a space flight without loos.
Why should I trust her? Because NASA did. And because her day job involves using words such as “mothership” and “spacecraft”. Also, though she isn’t strictly a rocket scientist, her advice will be ringing in your ears when you’re on a flight into space, travelling at Mach 3.
What does she do? She trains people to go into orbit. Or almost. Virgin Galactic plans to send people into space but turn round and come back without going into orbit.
Turn back? Sounds a bit Apollo 13. Absolutely not. (Though Tom Hanks is said to have signed up for a flight.) This is turning back in a planned, calm, the-champagne-is-in-the-ice-bucket sort of way. Think private jet zooming through the clouds and then keeping on going.
Will the trolley service include drinks and light refreshments? Trollies do very badly in zero gravity. But you won’t starve without your in-flight peanuts. One of the chefs mooted for the swish Foster + Partners New Mexico spaceport on the ground specialises in Japanese-inspired dishes. Feast before you fly. In her NASA days, says Moses, she usually had “a tuna-fish sandwich from the cafeteria”.
And no cabin crew in natty red suits? No cabin crew. And no one knows what any passengers will be wearing. Virgin’s spacesuits, even more than their science, are “top secret”. The most Moses will say is that the suits are not in the traditional “puffy like a Michelin man” vein but are instead “exceptionally sleek”. Albeit with room for those undergarments.
Who will check whether I’ve fastened my seatbelt? No one. The only people on the craft are passengers and pilots. In suborbital space no one can hear you press the call button.
So where, exactly, will we go? It’s complicated. In America, anyone who exceeds 80km above sea level counts as an astronaut. Historically, suborbital space is where the Soviet Union sent lots of sad dogs and where Wernher von Braun sent his V-2 rockets. But to you and me, it’s space. As you zoom through it you will experience floatiness, darkness, a view of the curvature of Earth. And stupendous bragging rights.
Sounds scary. Not at all. Mostly you’ll feel the changes in G-force – and you’ll have experienced that, says Moses, if you’ve been on rollercoasters. It’s just that a go on this rollercoaster costs $249,950-odd more than Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain.
Should I just save my pennies and go on a rollercoaster? Did I not mention the view? “I would call it spiritual,” says Moses, of the experience of gazing down on Earth. On the day she first went up, there was “glistening snow on the mountains below. They were so white and bright and clean, I felt that Earth was wearing her diamonds for us.” You don’t get that from the top of a fairground attraction.•