First Austrian Space Tourist

A 61-year-old Austrian entrepreneur Franz Haider became the first Austro space tourist, achieving astronaut status on Friday evening. The journey, which began 17 years ago with the purchase of a $200,000 ticket, culminated in a breathtaking flight to the edge of space with Virgin Galactic, the pioneering space company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Haider, hailing from the Waldviertel region and known as “Astronaut 025” in Virgin Galactic’s records, embarked on the “Galactic 06” mission from Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA. The mission was a realization of a long-held dream for Haider, who bought his ticket back in 2007. After years of anticipation and numerous delays, clear weather finally allowed for the mission to proceed, offering Haider and his fellow passengers an experience of a lifetime.

The flight commenced with the carrier aircraft “VMS Eve” taking the spaceship “VSS Unity,” resembling a private jet, to an altitude of approximately 15 kilometers. From there, “VSS Unity” soared to around 90 kilometers above the Earth. This altitude, as defined by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), qualifies the passengers to be listed as astronauts.

Aboard the “VSS Unity,” a slightly more than 18-meter-long spacecraft, Haider, three other space tourists, and two pilots experienced the thrill of a near-vertical climb, accelerating to up to 3,600 kilometers per hour, thrice the speed of sound. This intense ascent brought them to a state of near weightlessness, a surreal experience as the craft passed the apex of its trajectory upside down.

Inside the cabin, cameras captured the euphoric moments of the crew unstrapping themselves and floating freely, savoring a few minutes of weightlessness. At the peak of their journey, they were approximately 89 kilometers above the Earth. The joy and relief were palpable in the cabin, a testament to the success of the mission and the fulfillment of their long-awaited dream. The journey concluded with a smooth glide back to the spaceport, where they landed at around 6:56 p.m., welcomed by the applause of numerous onlookers.

Reflecting on his journey, Haider shared with APA his unwavering belief in the mission, despite the years of waiting. His ticket, purchased at a significant $200,000 (183,604.15 euros at the current exchange rate), is now a historic artifact, as prices for new buyers have more than doubled.

The environmental impact of such ventures, as calculated by the Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF), is comparable to the per capita emissions of a transatlantic flight. Gernot Grömer, the head of ÖWF, in a press release, highlighted the growing market in low Earth orbit, forecasting a significant increase in annual suborbital flights by 2031. This new era of space travel is not only about the state space programs but also about the burgeoning private sector, including privately run space stations expected in the next decade.

Virgin Galactic’s journey to this landmark event has been filled with years of development, challenges, and setbacks. However, the successful space venture of “VSS Unity” in 2018, followed by a team flight with Branson in 2021, paved the way for commercial flights. Since its inaugural tourist flight in July last year, Virgin Galactic has been steadily advancing in the space tourism industry, with “Galactic 06” marking the first flight of the year. This historic flight not only adds a new chapter to Virgin Galactic’s story but also heralds a new age of space exploration and tourism, led by private enterprise.