Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A First Look at Virgin Galactic

Dear Friends,

There is a grand tradition of Jewish people writing Christmas music. The best-selling single of all time, White Christmas, was composed by Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Isidor Beilin. The list goes on. Winter Wonderland, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Let it Snow, Santa Baby, You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch, and Silver Bells were all written by Jews. José Feliciano, the author of Feliz Navidad, was actually born Mordecai Simchah Gefilte Fishman ben Moishe Saul Cohen-Lowenstein Rabinowitz. True story.

This month, I grapevine in the footsteps of my ancestors with this medley of short Christmas songs. I hope you find them to be the perfect musical milieu for screaming at mall clerks who politely ask to see a receipt for the thing you're trying to return.

My senior year in college was probably the last time I knowingly disseminated Christmas cheer. My five housemates and I held occasional meetings to accuse each other of leaving unwashed dishes in the sink or to complain about the 50 pound bag of rice that was purchased without unanimous consent. That December, we held a house meeting to vote on whether to sublet our extra bedroom to an enigmatic Asian fiddle player. We agreed to do so if two conditions were met: 100% of his rent money would go towards Christmas lighting, and the display would be so garish that it could be seen from space. The electrical nightmare we created stretched well past the point of vulgarity, but unfortunately, there was no easy way to verify that it was visible to astronauts.

At this point, I wiggle my fingers and say, “DOO-da-la-doot, DOO-da-la-doot,” to indicate that we are traveling forwards in time to the present day. This year, overweight rich people will finally be able to journey to edge of the cosmos and look down on earth. 2014 is here, and this will be the year that commercial space travel takes off.

I predict that the industry will be referred to as "Rocketourism" by those who enjoy buzzwordplay, and that you will have heard both of those words here first.

How should you prepare for your first space tour? According to the Virgin Galactic website, you will leave from a spaceport in the New Mexico desert. Please plan to arrive at least 90 minutes in advance for sub-orbital flights, and 2 hours in advance for orbital flights. Bring copies of your passport, and pack light, because it takes 200 pounds of solid fuel to lift that 3 ounce tube of hand cream into space.

Following lift-off, the commercial spacecraft will reach a cruising altitude of 62 miles. Here, you will be treated to the ultimate sightseeing experience. Of course, you have seen the moon before, but few humans have seen it like this! Specifically, it will appear a bit smaller, because you will be a little farther away from it than usual.

While my old house in Providence is no longer visible from space, some claim that The Great Wall of China is. At its thickest point, the Great Wall is only about 30 feet across, the same width as a beach volleyball court. This is probably why the U.S. diverted so much money to the space program during the Cold War... most of the early manned missions were devoted to counting Soviet volleyball courts.

Anyway, a Virgin Galactic ticket includes a 30 minute space flight, unlimited Wi-Fi access and a complimentary copy of their inflight magazine, Thermospheres. This will run you just over $200,000 including bag fees, so keep an eye out for a Groupon offer.

As you glide back to earth, the cars on the interstate will look like tiny little ants scurrying in a line. As you draw closer, they will look more and more like giant, freakish ants. Holy crap… how long were you gone? Come closer still, and you will see that they're just cars. Phew.

Now let's talk about the elephant in the room... SAFETY. (And I'm not referring to Safety the Elephant from that fire department coloring book.) I understand your propensity to perseverate on the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Let's try to keep this in perspective, though. For every space shuttle that exploded, there were 2 space shuttles that didn't explode whatsoever. That already-favorable ratio is even more impressive when you consider NASA's practice of subcontracting all 20,000 spaceship parts to the lowest bidder. Virgin Galactic has much better quality control, because Sir Richard Branson personally inspects all defective O-rings. More importantly, all components are manufactured at a single location by employees of Virgin Industries. As you would imagine, most of them are kraut-rock singers who didn’t read the fine print in their record contracts.

One last piece of advice: Don't waste your time visiting the international space station. That place is a rocketourist trap.

With warmest regards,