Before you experience weightlessness on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, you'll be hanging on the belly of VirginMothershipEve then dropped and fired off like a missile. Here's what the ride will be like for those who can afford the $250,000 ticket, and what they mean by "space."
VirginMothershipEve is a massive bird with a 140' span of wings shaped like a "W." Two fuselages identical to SpaceShipTwo are about 50' apart, and between them is where the actual spacefaring vehicle will ride up to 50,000'.
The mother ship looks about as fragile as a balsa wood glider, but it's actually capable of 6 g turns and can pull hard enough to create a zero-g environment in the cabin.
At 50,000', the Eve will drop SpaceShipTwo off its belly. The little craft will freefall for a moment then fire up a rocket and surge upward to an eviscerating 2,500 MPH in a matter of seconds. Virgin Galactic's brochure emphasizes these motions are "exciting" rather than "blood-blisteringly terrifying" but I have a feeling if you're not much for roller coasters you might want to skip this.
At more than three times the speed of sound SpaceShipTwo will sneak just past the "Karman Line;" the altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) that's considered "space," to a peak altitude of 68 miles.
Theodore von Kármán was aeronautics physicist who was around from the 1880's to the 1960's. He basically worked out that 62 miles was the altitude at which the atmosphere would be too thin for an aircraft to operate in, hence, the semi-arbitrary "Karman Line."
So yes, haters, Virgin Galactic passengers really will be bona fide astronauts even if they're only over the threshold by six miles. That said; it's true SpaceShipTwo doesn't completely escape the Earth's atmospheric influence; the thermosphere and exosphere extend some 6,200 miles above sealevel. SpaceShipTwo itself relies on big flaps or "feathered wings" to airbrake its speed down for a return to the New Mexico facility "Spaceport America" it took off from.
But the vehicle, spaceship, or whatever you want to call it, will be high enough for long enough to give riders "four to five minutes of weightlessness" and what I'm sure will be indescribably spectacular views of the planet. In fact, Virgin says there are more windows than passengers so nobody gets elbow'ed out.
It breaks down to; Virgin Galactic is technically correct (the best kind of correct) in calling their passengers and pilot astronauts. It's also correct to say they'd have to go further to escape all gravitational and aerodynamic effects of the Earth. Either way, it looks like a wild ride.
Images: Virgin Galactic