To celebrate her 60th birthday neither a European trip nor an African safari was exciting enough for Glenys Ambe. Instead she’s gifting herself a trip to space, literally. Glenys is the first Australian to have booked a ticket on Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s commercial space travel project through a travel agent. “I have always wanted to go up in space,” she said. “The only day I wagged school in my whole life was when my father gave me permission … the day they walked on the moon.”
“I never thought [being able to go to space] would happen in my lifetime … it’s a dream and now I’ve got this dream that’s coming true.” The 56-year-old fashion shop owner from Brisbane was a star guest at a technology launch by Virgin Galactic in Sydney, which included a digital simulation of the two-hour flight that will cost her $277,400. All up, the two pilots and six passengers on board will spend just four minutes in space – that’s a cool $69,350 a minute to experience the thrill of zero gravity.
Testing of the six-passenger craft, SpaceShipTwo, and its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, is expected to take until mid 2011. Commercial flights will follow later that year under a lottery system for the first 500 passengers, who include Sir Richard, his family and other VIPs. Ms Ambe is one of 15 Australians, and 300 people worldwide, who have bought tickets and will fly after the VIPs. She will be the first Australian woman on a space flight, realizing her dream sometime in 2012 or thereafter. It’s really long but she doesn’t mind the wait. She says,” That’s OK, space will still be there. I’m not a three-year-old who needs it now.”
WhiteKnightTwo is currently in test phase, with a dual fuselage jet-engine design built to carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 15 kilometers. The rocket-propelled spaceship will then detach and burn fuel for 90 seconds to reach an altitude of 110km. It will remain suspended in zero gravity for four minutes before gliding back to its point of origin at an airstrip in the New Mexico desert. US Travel company Virtuoso heads ticket sales for Virgin Galactic and expects prices to emulate the history of passenger jet travel. Virtuoso’s head of “astronaut sales” Carolyn Wincer said the global economic downturn had slowed sales in the first quarter of 2009. But she expects 500 tickets to be sold before the first passenger flight and 50,000 in the first 10 years of operation. Galactic trips are expected to be as frequent as once a week. And the quick jaunt into space is just the tip of the iceberg. “This is just the beginning for us,” Ms Wincer said. “We want to do orbital flights. We want to be able to do lunar flights.” Maybe Ms. Ambe has the patience to wait but I am dying to know her experience.