Virgin Galactic could open up space to ‘everyday people,’ says former NASA astronaut

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.’s historic first commercial spaceflight could lay the foundations for a time when “everyday people,” not just billionaires, can one day visit space, according to former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins.

The private spaceflight company is targeting Thursday for its Galactic 01 mission. Its trip to space will be for scientific purposes, and will carry three crew members from Italy’s air force and the National Research Council of Italy looking to conduct research on microgravity.

Virgin Galactic

is planning its second commercial flight — Galactic 02, geared toward what it called “private astronauts” — for launch in early August, with monthly flights to follow.

The cost of a trip to space with Virgin Galactic is $450,000, so customers inevitably come from the ranks of the super-wealthy. Demand has been brisk — Virgin Galactic says that it has around 800 “future astronauts” signed up.

Related: Virgin Galactic stock rises on eve of first commercial spaceflight

But Collins, who flew four space shuttle missions, says that if companies like Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin can avoid accidents, price barriers for space tourism are likely to come down.

“I definitely believe that economics will change as more people fly and we get economies of scale, the costs will come down,” she told MarketWatch. “With more flights, there will be more economies of scale.”

Collins is currently on a tour to promote her book “Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars: The Story of the First American Woman to Command a Space Mission.” She told MarketWatch that Virgin Galactic could eventually target different customers.

“There aren’t that many billionaires — they will have to go to lower-net-worth people,” she said. “I think that over the next 10 years, if they do not have an accident, many more people will be able to fly.”

RelatedVirgin Galactic stock climbs more than 6% as company targets Thursday for first commercial flight

“It’s another step in the right direction — it’s another step in offering space to everyday people,” she said.

A former U.S. Air Force colonel and test pilot, Collins served as pilot on two space shuttle missions and commanded another two.  She told MarketWatch that the experience of seeing Earth from space was incredible. “It changed me in many ways — looking at the Earth from space, it’s a beautiful, overwhelming experience,” she said.

Many astronauts have described their intense feelings at seeing the Earth far below them, an experience that is known as “the overview effect.”

“You feel very small — it changes your perspective of the solar system,” Collins said, adding that it made her more conscious of taking care of our planet.

Related: Virgin Galactic stock tumbles after space-tourism company seeks to raise $400 million

Will the travelers making short trips to space with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin experience similar emotions? “I think it will happen to some of them,” Collins said.

The space veteran, however, took part in orbital missions at an altitude of about 200 miles, much further than Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights to an altitude of around 54 miles. From her vantage point orbiting Earth, the astronaut could see oceans and white clouds. “You see the atmosphere — it’s very thin,” she said. “The Earth is mainly blue ocean.”

“There are times that you can see ships’ wakes,” she added.

Whereas suborbital travelers will see land, that is not always the case on orbital missions, according to Collins. “My first flight, I saw almost no land, that was the nature of my orbit — the only land I saw was Australia,” Collins said. “On my second flight, I saw everything.”

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Collins, who spent 10 years flying space shuttle missions, told MarketWatch that she was a different person on her return from space. “Because I had achieved one of my life’s goals, I am lot more chilled out and low key than I was — I feel that I am enjoying life more,” she said. “I was driving into work the day after I came back from space and someone cut in front of me dangerously, and I remember saying ‘I don’t care.’”

Virgin Galactic’s stock ended Wednesday’s session up 9.2%.

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