From The Guardian Unlimited:
It looks like a cut-price version of the set of a Bond movie. Blocky, 60s-style white consoles face a large wall-mounted video screen, each covered in dials and buttons with words like “pump on”, “fire” and “liftoff” written on them. Only the slightly shabby appearance of the place and the metre-high inflatable rocket in the corner indicate that this is not the home of cat-stroking villains but a place of academic study.
The operations room of the Esrange space centre near Kiruna in the far north of Sweden is one of a handful of places in the world that perform space launches. The facility, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, is used by the European Space Agency and others to launch rockets and balloons for studying the upper atmosphere and the effects of microgravity. It also serves as a monitoring station for numerous satellites that orbit between the north and south poles.
In three years, if all goes to plan, Esrange will act as mission control for the European outpost of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The company hopes to begin commercial space flights from a purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico in 2010, but flights from Kiruna should follow soon afterwards. Once they are up and running, Virgin Galactic expects to be flying about 5,000 passengers a year.
Sweden offers one important advantage over the US, though. Passengers paying $200,000 (about £100,000) a ticket for the two-hour flight will be able to fly into the aurora borealis – the northern lights – something that no human has done before.
The idea was the brainchild of Will Whitehorn, Sir Richard’s right-hand man and president of Virgin Galactic. “When I asked the question 18 months ago, ‘what about flying into [the northern lights]?’ everybody said, ‘possible, but we don’t know what the view would look like’,” he said.
Scientists at Esrange have been flying rockets into the aurora since the 1960s, but no one has put a camera on board before, let alone a person, because it was of no scientific interest.
The mysterious shimmering curtains of coloured light that fill the night sky in winter are caused by charged particles in the solar wind. Esrange and the nearby Swedish Institute of Space Physics have studied the lights for decades and Dr Olle Norberg, Esrange’s director, is convinced that it will be safe to fly into their midst.
That’s a pretty good first idea of selling private space tourism to prospective buyers. Branson is no dummy, he’s made billions of dollars (I’m sure he prefers pounds, especially now) with his Virgin Airlines and other ventures. Taking paying customers to get upclose and personal with the Northern Lights would be quite the experience I’m sure.
Of course as the article states, shielding the electronics of the space-liner is extremely essential to keep your business coming, deadly accidents have a habit of increasing your overhead costs into bankruptsy, start-ups in particular.
I’m certain if anyone can pull this off, Branson will.
Hat tip to Universe Today