CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (Florida Today) -- Dropped, the spacecraft falls toward Earth - one ... two ... three ... four - before a burst of smoke and flame rockets it away from a mothership, forward and upward into a blue desert sky.
Watching video of the recent test flight from thousands of miles away in Central Florida, Marc Hagle imagined the G-forces pressing against his chest as the rocket motor ignited and the spaceship accelerated, just as he'd experienced in a simulator.
His wife, Sharon, felt a surge of excitement, thinking, "Wow, this is really going to happen."
The wait has introduced the couple to a community of future astronauts.
Together they have traveled to Virgin-sponsored properties in the British Virgin Islands, South Africa, Morocco, Sweden and Switzerland, usually spending time with Branson.
"You think you're buying a ticket, when actually, all this time, it's just a wonderful network of people around the world," Sharon said.
The Hagles aren't sure how their trip to space will affect them when it finally happens, but imagine it could be life changing. "I'm sensing that it will be a very spiritual experience and I'm eager to find out if that's the case," Sharon said.
Marc has read astronauts describe it as transforming the perspective of looking down on a borderless blue marble holding all life as we know it. It suddenly seems small, its conflicts petty. "I'm just curious what that's going to feel like."
And that experience may be just the start. Marc has asked to be put on Virgin Galactic's wait list for an orbital flight that he figures can't be far off.
"I hope that list is there and I hope our name is at the top of it," he said.
Virgin Galactic by the numbers
$250,000,current ticket price (up from $200,000)
600,approximate number of ticket deposits booked
534,people who have flown in space to date
8,people per flight (six passengers, two pilots)
90 minutes,approximate duration of the suborbital flight
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Six years after the Winter Park, Fla., couple was among the early buyers of $200,000 tickets to fly onVirgin Galactic, their opportunity to become astronauts feels closer than ever.
The company achieved a key milestone with April's first rocket-powered flight of SpaceShipTwo, which took the vehicle supersonic before it glided to a runway landing in Mojave, Calif.
A second test building upon that 16-second first firing is expected soon.
If schedules hold, a pair of private test pilots could reach space later this year, becoming the first astronauts to cross the frontier from U.S. soil since NASA's final shuttle crew in 2011.
That would put Virgin Galactic on track to open the world's first commercial spaceline next year, starting suborbital flights for paying passengers such as the Hagles and hundreds of others.
"It raised the excitement level, absolutely," Marc said of the test flight. "Now you can see that it's just a finite amount of time and we're doing it."
For the Hagles, both now 64, the space tourism adventure began in 2007 with an anniversary celebrated in simulated microgravity.
They flew from Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway aboard a Zero Gravity Corp. parabolic jet that produces short periods of weightlessness and reduced gravity.
The group of fliers who seemed to be having the most fun turned out to be staff and travel agents affiliated with Virgin Galactic, and the Hagles learned about the company's space tourism plans.
"Where do I sign?" asked Marc, president and CEO of Maitland, Fla.-based Tricor International Corp., which develops shopping centers, office buildings and residential properties.
The same day, they completed paperwork that made them passengers 40 and 41 in line to fly after an initial group of 100 "Founders."
That should have them boarding one of Virgin Galactic's first 25 commercial spaceflights out of Spaceport America in New Mexico.
All those bookings were significant to the company founded in late 2004 by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.
"That early commitment was what got Galactic off the ground," said CEO George Whitesides. "We really had to demonstrate as a company that there was a market. And it was folks who signed on early and stayed with the program who've been sort of the guiding light for us as we work through the demonstration program."
The company now has deposits totaling more than $70 million from about 600 fliers from around the world dozens more than the total number of people who have flown in space to date.
Justin Bieber this month became the latest celebrity to join the list. Others confirmed include Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Brightman.
The "future astronauts," as Virgin Galactic calls them, do not include the Hagles' three adult children.
"They think we're nuts," Sharon said.
Another new horizon
Sharon and Marc have traveled extensively, from African safaris to cities around the world, but don't consider themselves adrenaline junkies.
The upcoming spaceflight offers another new horizon that they don't see as a big risk.
"All we're really doing is flying higher and faster," Marc said.
They have absolute confidence in the system, team and track record put together by Branson, who has committed to flying with his children on the first commercial flight.
The spacecraft is evolved from SpaceShipOne, designed by renowned aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, which in 2004 flew two piloted suborbital trips within a week to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
A carrier aircraft, White-KnightTwo (dubbed "Eve"), will lift the 60-foot-long, 27-foot wingspan SpaceShipTwo ("Enterprise") to about 50,000 feet within 45 minutes to an hour.
It then releases the ship for a roughly minute-long, rocket-powered climb reaching three-and-a-half times the speed of sound up to 68 miles, above the internationally recognized space boundary of 62 miles.
"Our aspiration is to become the world's first spaceline, and there's so much that goes into that beyond just the vehicles."
- George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic
Once in space, six passengers, all with window seats that retract, will have three to five minutes in microgravity with enough room to perform a somersault or float M&Ms.
But based on optional training they've completed and advice they've received, the Hagles plan to do only one thing: take in the view.
They'll see the Earth's curvature and thin atmosphere shining brightly against the blackness of space, and possibly the moon or stars.
"Pay attention and look outside, because that's going to be the memory," Sharon said.
A cabin rigged with cameras will document the voyage so they don't have to.
They know the experience will go by quickly.
During three days of preflight training at Spaceport America, each passenger will be encouraged to come up with a game plan for how to make the most of their brief time in space.
The preflight program also covers safety procedures, general preparation for the experience and crew bonding, but Virgin Galactic said no more specialized training is necessary.
Passengers must be at least 18, according to regulations, and the company believes most healthy people could fly safely in their 70s and 80s.
Also part of the training: briefings on the risks of spaceflight in general, and of Virgin Galactic's systems specifically.
Fliers must sign that they understand those risks.
When their few minutes of weightlessness are up, the passengers will strap back into reclined seats and SpaceShipTwo will start its descent under the control of two pilots.
The spacecraft's tail fins will rotate upward for a "feathered" re-entry that creates drag while limiting heating, then snap back into place for a glide to the runway where the journey began roughly 90 minutes earlier.
Joyrides for the rich?
Some dismiss space tourism as joyrides for wealthy thrill seekers.
The Hagles say their trip is that, and more.
"Absolutely it's a joyride; we're going to enjoy the heck out of it," Marc said. "But it is the first step to something that is going to be very important for the future."
He expects that future to include "point-to-point" trips from one side of the globe to the other, and eventually trips to space stations or a lunar base.
Just like early transatlantic airline flights and many modern technologies, commercial spaceflight now is limited to "early adopters" who can afford it.
But it's hoped ticket prices, which Virgin Galactic just increased to an inflation-adjusted $250,000, will come down as the system matures.
"We think it's going to be huge," Whitesides said.
A second set of flight vehicles is now in production.
More important than the technology could be the chance for spaceflight to again inspire young people and encourage them to pursue technical careers, the way it did for the Hagles' generation.
With NASA struggling to tackle ambitious human exploration missions, Marc Hagle believes private spaceflight can pick up the slack to spark interest.
The Hagles have joined fellow fliers to form the nonprofit Galactic Unite, which promotes the study of science, technology, engineering and math along with entrepreneurship.
"It's not a new idea, but we have the advantage of being part of the space program and bringing that excitement down to the classroom level," said Marc, chairman of Galactic Unite's executive council.
Eager for the flight
While important flight tests remain, Virgin Galactic is finalizing details on everything from spaceship seat design to spacesuits to hour-by-hour plans for customers' experience, from training to lodging.
"Our aspiration is to become the world's first spaceline, and there's so much that goes into that beyond just the vehicles," Whitesides said.