While most frequent flyer programs don’t offer space flights as an award redemption, the inaugural flight of SpaceShipTwo will include a frequent flyer among its passengers. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group suborbital spaceplane is scheduled to take off as early as 2009 and Alan Watts redeemed 2 million miles for the opportunity to be one of the first space tourists.
How were you able to earn so many miles?
I have been a member of the Virgin Atlantic flying club for approximately 10 years and have enjoyed many flights with Virgin. I also have a Virgin American Express credit card, which gives me two miles for every pound I spend. I mainly fly to America as I have a holiday home in Florida. Since November 2007, I have been to New York twice, Florida once and Dubai once, all Upper Class flights with Virgin.
Since redeeming the two million miles, about how many more miles have you built up in your account?
I am not sure, but by paying for my wife and two children each time on the card and the bonus miles for Upper Class travel, it soon mounts up.
Was the decision to redeem all those miles for one award a difficult one to make?
I got home from work on a Friday night and Kelly my eldest daughter said that someone called Alan had rung up for me and has asked if I would like to go up in space. She did not believe it was a crank call as he knew so many of my details.
I rung him back later and he explained he was from Virgin Atlantic and as I had a frequent flyer gold card and over two million miles, he would like to offer me the opportunity to be the first frequent flyer in space with Virgin Galactic.
I explained that I was 51 and hope to semi-retire within five years and was saving the miles for lots of holidays with my wife to nice places, but I said I would think it over and call him back.
The more I thought about it and researched the Virgin Galactic project, I realized it was too good an opportunity to miss, and when my daughter said, “if nothing else, think of the view you will get out of the window,” it made up my mind to go. I rang him back on the Monday and agreed.
Have you always wanted to take a space trip? If not, when did you first dream of going into space?
I used to watch the old Dr. Who TV show and Star Wars films and was interested in space since the moon landings, but realized once I turned 30, that only the elite pilots were picked for training and not being a pilot, there was no chance. This has all changed now with Virgin Galactic opening up space travel to the general public.
Describe the space flight training course for our readers.
It’s very exciting, better than any theme park ride! The Virgin Galactic and NASTAR (National Aerospace Training and Research Centre) people had it organized perfectly.
We arrived at the training center and were introduced to the team, including our instructor Glenn who showed us around the facility explaining how the simulator and other things worked (NASTAR carries out other training, including ejector seat and decompression amongst others). We changed into Virgin Galactic flight suits and had a classroom session and training showing us a film of what to expect, the different types of G forces we would experience and breathing techniques to use under those forces.
We then went to an observation room and watched as we took turns in the centrifuge pod. When it is your turn they take you down to the simulator and strap you in, attach a sensor to your finger to keep an eye on your pulse, they also monitor your breathing and heart rate. All the time you are in the pod, you are in communication with the control center via camera and a microphone. Once you are comfortable, off you go! The front screen shows a simulation of the view you will see from the rocket and a rear camera gives a great view of the rocket motor igniting and burning.
The pod starts to move to an ‘idle’ speed of 1.4G before you hear the countdown for the spaceship to the drop from the carrier plane, then to rocket ignition! When the rocket ignites you get a fantastic feeling of acceleration and the G forces start.
You experience the same flight profile that SpaceShipTwo will take, including the ascent where you peak at 3.5Gz (this is where you feel the force pushing from head to toe).
You also experience the weightless period where you can enjoy the view, which even though it’s simulated is amazing — the real spaceflight will be breathtaking!
Then on the descent you begin to start building to a peak of 6Gx on the descent, but this time the forces push from chest to back — 6Gx means you weigh six times your normal weight and feels like a hippo is sitting on your chest! But you remember to breathe as you have been taught by Glenn and enjoy the ride.
Then you are gliding back to earth and all too quickly it is over. The last part of the day is the de-brief with the instructor before you’re presented with your ‘astronaut wings’ and an unflattering photo of yourself under G force. I can’t wait until the real thing!
Did you get to try out zero gravity? If so, what was it like?
Haven’t tried it yet, but I am looking forward to when I do.
We heard that actor William Shatner turned down an offer to be on the inaugural space flight, saying “I do want to go up but I need guarantees I’ll definitely come back.” You obviously feel differently, but are you concerned about the safety of flying into space?
I have no worries, when the time comes to be strapped in I am sure everyone will be apprehensive, but Virgin Galactic will make it as safe as humanly possible. If they encounter a problem or are unsure they will keep testing until it is sorted.
Has it been worth the miles so far? Do you think it was a good decision?
Yes, well worth it, probably the best decision I have ever made.