Jean Ries says he will never forget the first moment he flew a plane over 30 years ago. “Once you’re in the air, you almost forget talking to the tower, it’s elating,” he says.
The entrepreneur’s passion for flying has pushed him to some extremes in the intervening years. He attempted to get into the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force, he regularly pilots his own plane and, more recently, was accepted into the Virgin Galactic founders club.
As one of 80 people hand-picked by Richard Branson’s team, Ries stumped up $200,000 for a place on the first passenger space flight, which was expected to launch in 2010. It didn’t.
“I think there may have been an underestimation of the time and strict requirements by authorities for this aircraft to be ready,” Ries suggests.
A major factor was the tragic in-flight breakup of the VSS Enterprise on 31 October 2014, killing one pilot and injuring another. The experimental Virgin Galactic craft violently broke apart and crashed into the Mojave desert in California.
It was the first fatality on a spacecraft since the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and something Ries doesn’t like to focus on. But it puts into perspective the groundbreaking work of firms like Virgin Galactic. Ries likens commercial space exploration to aviation in the 1930s when fatalities were commonplace. As technology improved with the advent of the pressurised cabin, flights became safer, more comfortable and cheaper.
“In 1949, the Clipper flew from the US to the UK, it cost $49,000, one-way. We went from a $49,000 one-way ticket to today where my children fly to the US for $200.” Ries expects to see a similar evolution in space travel. “They [Virgin Galactic] are building six crafts and the goal is to go up twice a day. I believe that very rapidly prices will go down to less than $5,000 for a ride into space,” he says.
The implications of this technology go further than an adventurous jaunt beyond the clouds. Once the technology is fully developed, it is expected to dramatically reduce travel time and emissions.
Once the aircraft is brought 14,000 metres into the air by a mothership, it is released and rises into space where the pilot can switch off the engines and “theoretically you accelerate because there’s no more air resistance. You turn around the crust of the Earth and re-enter in Australia or America or the next continent.”
It means flights which previously took half a day would be reduced to around two hours.
Ries is delighted to play a part in what will be a major leap in aviation. But he is mostly looking forward to the experience and the awe-inspiring moment he looks out of the aircraft window and sees “our frail little blue planet in this ocean of darkness”.
He strongly believes it will happen, although no-one can say when. Ries was 48 when he joined the Virgin Galactic mission. Now 58, he has to be sure he is fit to fly when it’s time to board. “If I have a medical problem at some point, I back out and get my money back. That’s not what I want to do. I want to go to space.”