Enter the Virgin MothershipS

Say what you will about Sir Richard Branson — at least he uses his billions to help other people have fun, not just himself. That's the quality that makes him the prime funder behind space tourism, a brand new phenomenon that will let regular folk head to the stars for the first time. Well, regular folk with 200 grand up their sleeves, that is. After the recent unveiling of Branson's Virgin Mothership, we have to ask: Exactly how far are these new space tourists going, and does Paris Hilton's Virgin Galactic ticket really make her equal to the likes of Yuri Gagarin?

On Monday, Virgin Galactic's Branson and designer Burt Rutan gave the public our first peek at the Virgin Mothership — White Knight Two, an aircraft with a 43-meter wingspan and four Pratt & Whitney PW308 turbofans. It's gorgeous, it's gigantic, and it's going to carry Rutan's not-yet-completed aircraft SpaceShipTwo and six passengers (per flight) if all goes well. In fact, it's the first built of two planned White Knight Twos: This one is called "VMS [Virgin Mothership] Eve," after both Branson's mother and the Biblical pioneer of humanity.

Enter the Virgin Mothership

As this BBC news graphic shows, the plan is for White Knight Two "Eve" to carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 15,000 meters, where SpaceShipTwo will then disembark and fire its engines for the biggest stage of the journey. It has to go up to at least 100,000 meters to break the Kármán line, or the official boundary of space according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Virgin Galactic's flight plans have it at 110,000 meters.

Near the top of the curve — specifically, after SpaceShipTwo's engines shut off and as it coasts to the highest point in its trajectory - passengers will experience weightlessness for a sustained six minutes. This explains the price hike to $200,000; six straight minutes is a bit more than you'd get out of a $3,675 parabolic flight with the Zero Gravity Corporation. After that, as they say, it's all downhill.

Enter the Virgin MothershipS

On Virgin Galactic's website, passengers (read: people who can afford to make deposits over $20,000) are described as astronauts. But the thing is, they're not exactly; in my view, astronauts are chosen for the value of their skills and expertise, and they're either wild daredevils or bewildered victims. Virgin Galactic's customers will be the first visitors to space who are tourists — not astronauts. So it's fitting, now that Branson estimates a maiden voyage in 18 months, for us to take a nostalgic look back at the first ever astronauts to cross the Kármán line.

The first living Earth creatures in space were a couple of fruit flies, who coasted past that 100-km boundary in a V-2 rocket in 1947. If that doesn't count for you, Albert II the Rhesus monkey went up on June 14, 1949 — also in a V-2 rocket. It didn't work out very well for him, though, as his parachute failed and he perished on impact. In 1950, the United States launched mice into space with V-2s; in 1951, the Soviet Union raised the stakes and sent two dogs up in an R-1. Both survived.

Enter the Virgin Mothership

Several more Soviet dogs and American mice made the journey past the boundary of space in the 1950s, but the next first explorer was Laika, a stray dog who went from sniffing dumpsters in Moscow to being a canine cosmonaut. Laika went farther than any of Virgin Galactic's tourists will go on SpaceShipTwo; on November 3, 1957, inside Sputnik 2, she completed a full orbit of the Earth. (Yup, that's right — the first Earthling to orbit the planet had two X chromosomes.) She probably didn't finish many more, however, because the spacecraft cabin's thermal control system malfunctioned and she died about five hours into the flight. Laika's story is tragic, but it gets worse: Soviet engineers did not design Sputnik 2 to be retrievable. Nobody expected her to get back to Earth alive.

Enter the Virgin Mothership

Life was kinder to Ham the chimp, a primate from Cameroon who found his way to the US Air Force and eventually into a Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone rocket. His suborbital spaceflight took place on January 31, 1961, and he emerged from splashdown with only a bruised nose to show for it.

That April, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in known history to orbit the Earth. He had spent his adolescence building and flying small-scale unmanned aircraft, and entered military flight school in 1955. After five years in the Soviet Air Force and another year of rigorous training in the space program, he was selected for this historic honor.

In December 2009, according to Branson, he and his family will become the first in known history to enter space — having paid for it themselves. After them come William Shatner, Signourney Weaver, Stephen Hawking, and ... Paris Hilton. Yeah, space tourism is beginning. One must wonder where it will take us.

Images from The Huffington Post, BBC News, WIRED Magazine, Wikipedia.