Countdown begins for space tourist

HE MAY be in his 70s but he still intends to be the first Scots tourist in space. Dr Madsen Pirie, founder and president of the Adam Smith Institute, is planning to be among the first to go into sub-orbit with the first purely-commercial space tourist flights hoping to take off later this year.

Pirie, 71, booked his reservation with space ‘travel agent’ Space Adventures more than a decade ago – becoming the first person from Britain to do so.

The booking secured him a seat on one of the world’s first sub-orbital space flights to be run by Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson, which said it intends to start offering the trips within the year.

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Pirie said: “My enthusiasm for going into space remains undimmed. There have been postponed hopes, but I always try to be more optimistic about when the right hardware is going to be developed. One always hopes it will be as soon as possible.”

Last November, Branson said: “Hopefully, by next Christmas, myself, my daughter and my son will be the first people to go up into space.”

At least two other speciality airlines have also started to take bookings for future space flights while insurer Allianz, will introduce a space insurance product this year.

The sub-orbital space flights, which cost between £100,000 and £200,000, offer tourists the chance to travel just beyond the space barrier in a rocket and experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to earth – all within two and a half hours.

Pirie, who studied at the University of Edinburgh and St Andrews, said he has always wanted to go into space.

“Mine is the first generation of private citizens who can see this planet from the outside,” he said. “That alone is motivation to do it.”

The sub-orbital flights have been compared to a giant roller coaster ride, with the short period of weightlessness meaning they are not recommended for the weak of stomach. However, there is currently no upper age limit for the flights.

“It’s more of a health limit than an age limit,” said Pirie. “Obviously if people are incapable of withstanding the rigours of the launch then they shouldn’t be doing it, but they’re not very demanding. There’s no training for a week in water tanks or anything.”

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Pirie has twice been to Kazakhstan in recent years to witness the blast off at close range of several orbital space flights, which took only very wealthy paying guests on working trips to the International Space Station. But these flights, which cost around £13 million, involve weeks of training and allowed the space holidaymakers to spend several days on the ISS.

The first person to take part in one of these flights and become the world’s first space tourist was American multi-millionaire Dennis Tito in 2001. In 2009, Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte took an 11-day space excursion.

Pirie says that having witnessed the orbital flights taking off, he hopes the first suborbital flights will start soon. “The only thing that concerns me slightly is if I will still be young enough and fit enough to do it,” he said. “But then again, Branson intends to fly his own father on a flight.”

No launch date has been announced, but when it is, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket ship will be taken from its base in New Mexico by a carrier airplane to a height of 50,000ft from where it will be propelled through the “space barrier”.

The acceleration will press passengers into their chairs. The engine noise will then cut out, the blue sky will turn black, and weight will turn to weightlessness – at which point the passengers will be able to do somersaults and have their pictures taken with Earth in the background.

The passengers will be strapped back into their seats before SpaceShipTwo re-enters the atmosphere, exerting another few minutes of crushing force. Once it has slowed, it will glide back to the runway.

The first Scot in space was Brian Binnie, from Aberdeen, who took charge of SpaceShipOne in 2004 to become only the second civilian space pilot in history when he piloted the rocket plane to a height of around 70 miles. He now works with Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

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Some specialist travel agents are predicting a sales bonanza. Lynda Turley Garrett, president of Alpine Travel in Saratoga, California, is one of 58 accredited space agents for Virgin Galactic in the US.

She said: “Just to be able to sell space travel as a regular part of your business, really, just how cool is that?”

So far, she has only sold three seats but expects that to change once the flights start. By 2017, “it’ll be just like scheduling a flight to LA,” she predicted.