“Let’s shoot a music video in SPACE!” bleated Justin Bieber on Twitter when he signed up to Richard Branson’s first celebrity-packed commercial space flight.
The idea of Bieber getting to become a “future astronaut”, as Branson calls his sub-orbital passengers, just because he has money may not seem appealing to the solar explorers who train for decades for the privilege of glimpsing Earth from above.
Or is it? Don’t forget Bieber could be one of many celebs who end up with nausea, bruises and broken bones by going to space.
Hollywood royalty are ignoring the warning signs that going sub-orbital with little training may not be the best idea. Branson’s experimental SpaceShipTwo craft crashed in October last year, killing its co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
Yet so far, almost 700 people have paid either £125,000 or £155,000 for a two-hour trip 68 miles above earth inside Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
Tom Hanks has booked a spot, along with Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Branson’s family will be going, and, during a 2013 auction at Cannes Film Festival property developer Vasily Klyukin paid almost £1million to sit beside DiCaprio on the voyage.
In 2014, a year after Branson rang Kutcher to congratulate him on his booking, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight exploded over the Mojave desert. Pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, died and his co-pilot Peter Siebold, 43, was seriously injured after he survived a 10-mile fall.
“There will be an issue making sure everyone gets back in their seats after floating about. You could easily knock yourself unconscious”
In August, after a nine-month investigation, a report by The National Transportation Safety Board (TNTSB) concluded the crash was caused by human error and inadequate safety measures.
The Virgin rocket had been equipped with a braking system to help reduce speed and stabilise its descent on its return to Earth. But the investigation found Alsbury mistakenly unlocked the brakes before the ship had reached the right speed.
Despite the fatality, and the fact the number of potential bookings plummeted after the crash, Branson remains convinced people will still be interested in a holiday in space. He insisted after the TNTSB hearing Virgin Galactic will carry on with its plans.
“It’s highly likely you will be sick, and that’s a real concern”
It’s been 24 years since Branson registered the name Virgin Galactic and 11 years since the company began to build its first space craft.
Yet the company still has no timescale as to when flights will be safe enough to carry space tourists.
Even NASA has lost three per cent of all people it has sent into space, with re-entry the biggest risk. Branson himself has admitted, “For a government-owned company, you can just about get away with losing three per cent of your clients. For a private company you can’t really lose anybody.”
Astronauts have warned if Branson flies his space craft for an extended period, statistics dictate one of them will crash with passengers onboard – the same as the risks of flying on aeroplanes, or even of driving cars.
Death is not the only risk involved in playing Neil Armstrong.
Before the physical impact of experiencing zero-gravity, passengers should consider the psychological effects.
Anxiety, depression and an odd sense of euphoria and fearlessness can possess those who have glimpsed the insignificance of Earth in the frame of a small window
Fighter pilots who regularly experience high altitudes can suffer “break-off” – an immense and overwhelming feeling of detachment from the human race. It can get more profound when astronauts see the atmosphere getting threadbare at the troposphere at around 45,000 feet, and deeper still when you see the curvature of the earth in silence at almost 70,000 feet.
Studies on test pilots and astronauts have shown anxiety, depression and an odd sense of euphoria and fearlessness can possess those who have glimpsed the insignificance of Earth in the frame of a small window.
Then there’s the added financial, and potential physical, costs of preparation for a zero-gravity sub-orbital voyage.
Branson recommends his future astronauts take a trip on The Zero G, a specially modified plane that, for £3,200 per person, creates weightlessness.
Passengers on The Zero G have complained of broken bones as they have only a few seconds to prepare to land back in their seats when the weightlessness cuts off. It can also cause vomiting – not pleasant for other passengers floating at zero-gravity.
Dr David Green from King’s College London said the speed of acceleration and deceleration in the Virgin flight won’t be much fun. “It’s highly likely you will be sick, and that’s a real concern,” the senior lecturer in human and aerospace physiology warned. “Also, there will be an issue making sure everyone gets back in their seats after floating about. Going back to Earth, everything will feel heavier. You could easily knock yourself unconscious.”
Basically, if you resent taking off your belt and shoes to board a plane and have to block out the feeling that being 30,000 feet in the air at the mercy of a pilot isn’t natural, Virgin Galactic isn’t for you.