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Meet the man who is going to fly the world's first space tourists 360,000ft above the Earth.. And he confesses: 'I AM a little scared of heights'.

Byline: GRAEME CULLIFORD

AS the world's first commercial space pilot, British flying ace David Mackay will be at the controls when Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spacecraft soars to 360,000ft.

But coaxing him into a cherry picker lift for a photo high above the craft is a different matter. he's terrified of heights.

David, 54, reluctantly agrees but he is visibly nervous as the machine lifts him towards the roof of t AAAhe hangar at a remote airbase in California's Mojave Desert.

"I do have a bit of a fear of heights," he admits. "But I don't get scared of heights when I am flying a plane.

"It is only in certain situations, like when I'm in a confined space and not strapped in. I think that like most pilots I am a bit of a control freak, and being in that situation makes me feel out of control so I don't like it."

The former RAF pilot is in charge of test flights for the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, christened VMS eve after Branson's 90-year-old mother, and SpaceShipTwo, which will be the first aircraft to take paying tourists into space. our picture shows the two craft joined together with SpaceShipTwo in the middle.

Over the next 12 months he will fly to heights far greater than any passenger jet can reach. And he will practise landing Space-ShipTwo for the first time. once its rocket is ready, he will strap himself into the craft and fire himself into space at 2,500mph.

Then in 2013, if all goes to plan, he will fly Sir Richard, 61, his children holly, 30, and Sam, 26, and other VIPs on the world's first commercial space flight.

Celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom hanks, Madonna and Paris hilton are rumoured to have signed up. They are expected to wear adult nappies (there will be no toilets on board) to be shot up into space shortly after the first flight.

For David, the ambitious programme is a boyhood dream come true.

He says: "I was brought up in the north of Scotland and where I lived was so lowly populated it was used as a lowflying area by the air force, so lots of exciting aircraft used to fly over my village. To me it looked incredibly exciting and so, according to my mother, I would never talk about anything other than being a pilot.

"I was also a child of Apollo. I can still remember them wheeling the black and white TV sets into our classroom at school so we could watch the men landing on the Moon, and that obviously had a huge impact. I later found out those people flying Apollo were ex-military test pilots so I decided to join the air force and become a test pilot.

"I hoped it would lead to me becoming an astronaut. But by my early 30s, I realised I'd never be an astronaut in the UK as there was nothing going on."

But when David left the RAF after 16 years in 1995 and joined Virgin Atlantic as a long-haul pilot he unwittingly put his dream within reach. earlier this year he was asked to quit his job at the airline to be chief pilot for Virgin Galactic.

He has now moved from Salisbury, Wilts, to California with his wife Sue, 51, and their children Duncan, 16, and Katharine, 11, to work on the project, which could one day pave the way for tourists to take regular trips into space.

The WhiteKnightTwo mothership will take an hour to carry SpaceShipTwo to 53,000ft before they detach. David will then fire SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor and accelerate to 2,500mph in less than a minute as it leaves the atmosphere.

David says: "It will be about 5G acceleration so the passengers will feel a pressure like a pile of books on top of them. They will need to force out their chests to breath.

"It's going to be unlike anything the passengers have experienced before and even a pilot will have never experienced this sort of acceleration.

"It's much more than a fairground ride, and coupled with the noise and vibration from the rocket motor, it will be a thrilling experience."

Once SpaceShipTwo reaches 360,000ft, the six passengers - paying pounds 150,000 each - will unstrap their seatbelts and experience weightlessness and take in incredible panoramic views of the Earth.

Then, for pilot David, comes the tricky bit. Re-entering the atmosphere in a spacecraft is dangerous as it becomes incredibly hot due to its speed.

But Virgin Galactic believes it has developed a failsafe solution, thanks to designer Burt Rutan. SpaceShipTwo is made of carbon fibre composite material, which will make it very light and strong, and its revolutionary "feather" wing system will make sure it descends more slowly and steadily than previous craft, such as NASA's Space Shuttle.

The spaceship's tail pivots 65 degrees so it re-enters with the forward part of the fuselage at 90 degrees. The "feather" also creates a lot of drag very high up in the atmosphere that slows the vehicle down to stop it getting too hot.

Once SpaceShipTwo re-enters the atmosphere and descends to 70,000ft it will lower its tail again and become a glider that will spiral back to the runway at Virgin's New Mexico spaceport.

David adds: "We are all aware of the US space mission disasters. No one wants something awful to happen.

"The very first subject is the man who's got to put his money where his mouth is, Richard Branson. And also to prove the point he is going to be taking his two children with him.

"I cannot wait to get up there and experience space travel for the first time. It will be a dream come true."

A brief history of space flight..

JUNE 1944: Germany's V-2 becomes the first rocket to reach space during a test flight.

July 19S7: The Space Race between Cold War enemies the US and the Soviet Union starts when the Americans announce they will launch satellite Vanguard into orbit the following year.

October 19S7: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 - the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. A month later a dog, Laika, is the first animal in orbit.

April 1961: Yuri Gagarin is first man in space as he orbits the Earth in the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 1.

June 1963: Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space in Vostok 6.

July 1969: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the first men on the Moon in the Apollo 11.

April 1981: The Space Shuttle Columbia has its first orbital test flight.

January 1986: Television viewers across the world watch in horror as Space Shuttle Challenger explodes moments after take-off, killing seven crew.

February 1993: Seven more die as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates over Texas.

July 2011: Space Shuttle Atlantis makes its final flight as the US ends the shuttle programme.

October 2011: Virgin Galactic gets ready to begin test flights for SpaceShipTwo, which it hopes will be the first spacecraft to take tourists into space.

Space trip facts

WhiteKnightTwo can carry SpaceShipTwo to 53,000ft

SpaceShipTwo will accelerate to 2,500mph and reach 360,000ft

Passengers will experience up to 5Gs of G-force pressing down on them during the ascent

About 450 people have already paid up to secure a place in space

Celebrities rumoured to have booked a place include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Paris Hilton.

The first flights are expected to start in 2013.

Rich? Book now

A SEAT on board the Virgin Galactic space ship will cost you pounds 150,000, and a pounds 15,000 deposit up front will hold a place for you. To book go to www.virgingalactic.com

How it works

1 At 50,000ft: SpaceShipTwo separates from the mother ship and accelerates to 2,500mph

2 At 328,000ft: Passengers become as tronauts as spacecraft leaves the Earth's atmosphere

3 At 361,000ft: Maximum altitude where wings feather (tilt) to control angle of re-entry

4 Re-entry initiated

5 70,000ft: Wings "de-feather" for the glide back to Earth.

CAPTION(S):

First in space... Yuri Out of this world... how Spaceport will look Zoom with a view... the passenger cabin Dream me up... SpaceShipTwo will carry six space tourists Fright stuff... pilot David braves fear of heights to show off his spacecraft. SpaceShipTwo is the central section
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 9, 2011
Words:1404
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