The Thinness of Space

I'd never encountered British billionaire Sir Richard Branson in person, but on Wednesday I had the chance to attend a press conference where the seemingly oft-smiling magnate was present. What brought this high-flying business icon to the American Museum on Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side? The chance to reveal the latest design in private space travel vehicles with his colleague and aviation pioneer, Burt Rutan, via their Virgin Galactic venture.

The two men were on hand along with other aerospace engineers, astronauts, and luminaries to showcase the new look for White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo. White Knight Two is a massive, vulture-esque plane that will take the smaller passenger capsule SpaceShipTwo to an altitude where a mid-flight launch is possible. Virgin Galactic claims the two (air? space?) craft are about 60-70 percent completed and will be ready for test flights later this year.

But before you begin dreaming of your personal view of the blue planet, this endeavor will remain the pursuit of the rich and famous for years to come. Initial boarding passes are expected to hover around $200,000 apiece, which incidentally doesn't include an extra pillow or crappy headphones. (Also, I've been at zero gravity in the "Vomit Comet" and serving food in those conditions could be tricky.) Anyway, joking aside, it's actually hard not to get excited about the potential for private space travel in the next several years or so. And when Branson speaks it's easy to get enthused about his vision. But safety will remain the most important hurdle for this venture to succeed, and that is never a certainty beyond the bonds of Earth.

Also on Wednesday I got my hands on the MacBook Air, an action that didn't exactly strain my biceps. At three pounds it's definitely the lightest notebook I've held (that's with battery -- non-removable battery, that is). It's also very thin. And the touchpad taps into some of the iPhone's re-size, twist or pinch features. That's sort of about it really. Yes, I suppose it's "sleek and sexy" though I'm not sure why that matters to some people. Maybe you can pose next to it with a manila envelope case.

Despite its wafer-like design it felt solid enough. The majority of complaints I've read have to do with no DVD player (though you can buy an external drive for $99), limited ports, and a questionable battery life. I could certainly understand the first two critiques but didn't get a chance to use it long enough to test the latter. (Apple always shows up in a veil of secrecy, and in this case they disappeared after we had about 30 minutes with the newest addition to Apple's products.) Since the Air starts at $1,799 (by the way, when WILL we start rounding up prices to the nearest dollar) and exceeds $3,000 for a faster processor and a handful of other features, you might want to seriously consider the effect it will have on making your wallet a lot lighter.