Sharon Hagle waited over 60 years to go suborbital. In 1961, when she was in sixth grade, she sat transfixed, listening to the radio as astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel to outer space.
But this year, on March 31, she emulated her hero by taking a seat on New Shepard 4, flight NS-20, as part of the fourth crewed mission of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket program.
“I had to pinch myself that I wasn’t daydreaming,” she told The Post.
“You’re strapped in and then you hear the countdown: ‘Three, two, one … lift off!’Then the deafening roar of the engines and your seat starts to rumble.
“As you slowly lift off the whole cabin turns red from the reflection of the engines igniting. It’s like slow motion for a few seconds and then pow! You start pulling the G [forces] and the Earth disappears behind you.”
Hagle is the 73-year-old founder of SpaceKids Global, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to inspire children to excel in science and technology. She was joined on the trip by her husband her, Marc, 74. Like her, he grew up fascinated by the space race, watching the Vanguard rockets of the mid-50s launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Together, the couple, from Winter Park, Fla., became the first husband and wife to ever make a commercial space flight.
“I have him to thank for taking me out of my comfort zone,” she added of her spouse.
With Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX all engaged in their own star wars, space travel is very much back in vogue — and it’s not just the billionaires that can take the ride.
Ron Rosano is a property manager from Muir Beach, Calif., and already has plans to go into space twice: with both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
“For the first time, you don’t have to be a career astronaut to go into space,” the 62-year-old told The Post. “What’s exciting for me is that over the next few years so many more people are going to have the opportunity to see the earth from space and maybe think differently about where we’re going, both personally and as a planet.
“That’s just as exciting as me going myself,” said Rosano, who also he hosts Galactic Unite Spacechats, gathering students from around the world online to talk about space.
When he gets the green light, Rosano will embark on a sub-orbital flight taking him more than 60 miles into space, past the Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary of when our atmosphere becomes space. Propelled at speeds in excess of 2,200 mph, he could face G-forces of up to six times the force of gravity as well as weightlessness.
He will also encounter what Hagle called a “black wall of space,” something that surprised her. “There’s no reflection of stars. There’s no light. It’s just black,” she said.
Then there’s the epic finale — the moment the travelers see the curvature of the Earth, or what’s termed “The Overview Effect.”
“Looking at Earth from space changes you,” Hagle said. “It has such an impact. It’s imprinted on you for life. For me, it was very emotional and very spiritual. After seeing the earth with your own eyes, you realize you have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Rosano said he’s seen it happen to others: “I’ve been to several launches and when you see people return to earth, you can just see the transformational effect it has had on them. Even the experts, who know all about it and know exactly what to expect, seem to struggle to process what just happened to them.”
Powerful though it is, the entire trip on Blur Origin doesn’t take much more than 11 minutes from take-off to landing at the company’s launch site in West Texas.
It doesn’t come cheap either.
While Blue Origin doesn’t publish its prices, a seat on the maiden crewed flight in July 2021, alongside Bezos and his brother Mark, was auctioned off for $28 million. A seat on Virgin Atlantic’s sub-orbital journey starts at around $300,000.
Craig Curran, 64, is a travel agent from Rochester, NY, and a future astronaut. He even set up Galactic Experiences by Deprez, a space travel branch of his luxury travel agency his, and is now a Virgin Galactic-accredited “Space Agent.”
He offers clients a wide range of space-based experiences, especially for those without the wherewithal to book a Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic trip. One of the most popular is “Zero-G,” where passengers take a 90-minute flight on a specially modified Boeing 727 and experience the same weightlessness as they would on a sub-orbital rocket ride. The cost? Just $8,200.
He booked himself on a Virgin Galactic ride in 2011 but is still waiting for the call to slip on his spacesuit and strap in. “I’m hoping it will be next year or 2024 but it will certainly be worth the wait,” he said.
As of November 2021, there were over 700 customers signed up with Virgin Galactic and the company is expecting 1,000 people to be ready for lift-off when it begins commercial flights later this year.
Like Curran, there are a growing number of entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the new appetite for space tourism.
David Doughty is a director of Rocketbreaks, which bills itself as “the world’s first dedicated space travel agency.” The company offers a range of space experiences, right up to 10-day visits to the International Space Station (price upon request).
“The process of providing a luxury private jet or helicopter service is exactly the same as providing space trips,” said Doughty, who has a background in private aviation. “It’s just the destination that’s different.”
Rocketbreaks can even help arrange insurance for your trip to help cover cancellations, delays or mechanical breakdown.
But for those who have been up, like Sharon Hagle, and those yet to go, like Ron Rosano, there is no fear about what could happen.
“For Blue Origin, we had four or five days of training so we were all very comfortable at the launch. I thought I might be nervous but it just didn’t happen,” said Hagle.
Rosano, meanwhile, said life on Earth is more dangerous than taking to space. “There’s risk in everything,” he says. “It can be more risky riding down the freeway.”
Increasingly, there are more affordable ways to see the stars. With seven planned spaceports around the world, including one at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, World View sells helium-powered balloon rides into space. While you won’t experience the G-forces and weightlessness of a sub-orbital rocket flight, passengers will ascend for two hours in an enclosed capsule to a peak altitude of 100,000 feet — or about three times higher than a commercial airplane. Cocktails will be served, too.
Another company, Space Perspective, is also planning to send balloons into space in 2024, but, like World View, has yet to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
Still, over 1,000 people have already signed up for World View, handing over a $500 deposit for the $50,000 trip. Ilida Alvarez has a reservation with her husband her, Rafael Landestoy, 39, even though she hates flying.
“I don’t like the sensation of butterflies in my stomach or the lack of control,” said Alvarez, 46 and a mediator from Miami, Fla. “But I’ve always dreamed of going to space since a very young age and never truly thought it would be possible.”
For Alvarez, it was the more sedate pace of World View’s balloon ride that sealed the deal. “To be able to go up and down slowly while have an individually-curated first class experience and then being able to spend several hours taking in the beauty of our planet and space is just priceless.
“I have to think it will be a life altering experience.”
But with an increasing number of options available for future astronauts, it could, according to Craig Curran, spark a new galaxy gold rush with money the only obstacle as to how far you can go.
Axiom Space, for example, is currently building the world’s first commercial space station, with interiors designed by Philippe Starck.
“I have no doubt that we will be living on the moon in the future — there will be space hotels,” Curran said.
“And Elon Musk will probably be living on Mars.”