I'm not sure how long I'd been asleep, but the well-dressed woman next to me was nudging me in the ribs because she wanted to leave. We were in the darkened Rose Planetarium at New York's Museum of Natural History on Monday, listening to a panel discussion featuring none other than the famed eccentric entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, talking about Virgin Galactic's plans for space travel.
It was entitled: "The Future of Travel: Are We Moving Fast Enough?" I hoped I hadn't been snoring.
This is what you get, I suppose, when Grey Goose Vodka co-hosts a party with Virgin Galactic, Branson's space exploration company, and gives a hapless journalist like me access to endless fizzy vodka drinks.
I'm sure I wasn't the only one who felt fizz-brained that night, as Branson unfurled his lifelong dream of bringing consumers to space. He talked about NASA's first manned flight to the moon in 1968, and how earth is really just a spaceship too. He also waxed about his plans to colonize Mars.
If it had been anyone but Branson, I might have immediately decamped to somewhere else. But as crazy as it sounds, this whole space thing is really happening--it's just not clear if it'll ever take off for the masses.
Branson's Virgin Galactic represents the business-to-consumer end of privatized space travel, which is rapidly being developed by Branson and other entrepreneurs who see opportunities with the U.S. government. There's Elon Musk, whose company, SpaceX, has already won multi-billion dollar government contracts to operate space taxis for the Pentagon and other federal agencies, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origins spacecrafts are supposed to wean the U.S. off its reliance on Russian space technology.
If all goes according to plan, Virgin Galactic will launch its first passengers into space in 2015.
"Virgin Galactic will democratize access to space by building the first space line for planet earth," George Whitesides, chief executive and president of Virgin Galactic told the audience.
That's a pretty laudable goal, and I sincerely hope it is true. Earlier that evening--as I was lurking in the shadow of the Willamette meteorite, trying to avoid sticking myself in the eye with the silver Grey Goose stirrers--I had the good fortune to run into Craig Horsley, who's going to be something like the 700th passenger-astronaut Virgin Galactic will shepherd into space. Horsley, an accountant, personal trainer and occasional investor in off-Broadway plays, says he used a home equity credit line on his house in Queens, New York to pay for his $250,000 ticket to space. The ride will last about three hours, but its actual sojourn in gravityless space is something like four minutes.
"I was a fat kid growing up, and I've always wanted to be weightless," Horsley told me when I learned, to my horror, that I'd weigh more than 400 pounds on the sun, based on the information a scale that calibrates such things, buried in the terrazzo floors of the planetarium, spat back. So riding on Branson's spaceship, for him, was a "dream come true."
Horsley said he wasn't concerned that much about cost, or safety issues, or any of the other anxiety-provoking concerns latent in consumer space travel. Among others, there's the fact that it's never been done before, though it's been talked about for decades, and that once you're out in space, you also have to get back. These minor details would take a wimp like me way more than a couple of fizzy vodka drinks to get over.
Horsely had complete confidence in Branson and Virgin Galactic to get the job done, although his flight won't take off for another two-and-a-half years.
And that also got me thinking: I suppose if anyone could gain customer confidence years before a product is available, and commercialize space travel, it would certainly be Branson, whose charisma and popular appeal and ability to make billions in entertainment and jet travel is the envy of entrepreneurs every where. Already Branson has spent hundreds of millions of dollars enabling his Virgin Galactic dream. He has built a space port in the New Mexico desert whose passenger area is so beautiful, it reportedly moved one customer to tears. He also acquired the reusable rocket technology that will make the whole enterprise fly, so to speak.
Clearly Branson isn't taking this enterprise lightly. (In fact, to win consumer trust, he plans to journey with his son on one of the final test trips before consumers start flying.)
And as Branson said at the Rose Planetarium: "We are nearly there, it has been a long process. And it is rocket science, and it is difficult." As for me, I'm still going to have to wait for those ticket prices to come down pretty significantly before I journey to outer space. Hopefully that will be within my lifetime.