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Designing a rocket ride into suborbit

Industrial designer takes inspiration from comics, movies while working on the interior of Virgin Galactic spacecraft and the suits tourists will wear on suborbital flights.

SAN FRANCISCO--Before Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson hired him to design a futuristic tourist rocket ship, Richard Seymour's only experience in the market was dreaming up spacecraft for the movies.

The U.K. industrial designer, for example, conceived of a spacecraft that could send people to the sun in the Fox Searchlight movie Sunshine. That exercise, although not technically possible, taught him to think about how hostile space is for humans, with the capability to "turn you into face cream," Seymour said.

"We were thrilled when Virgin Galactic came to us," he said here Thursday at Connecting '07, the annual design conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America. "But we said, 'Well, we've done a few movies of space, but don't pitch us too hard on the physics of it.'"

Kidding aside, Seymour said that his U.K. design company Seymourpowell, is designing the interior of the craft and the space suits that tourists will wear on their two-hour suborbital flights with Virgin Galactic. Having already sold out its first flight at $200,000 per passenger, Branson's company is planning its first commercial launch for 2008.

Virgin Galactic's rocket, which is being built by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, will accommodate six people and two pilots on a two-hour trip to suborbit, where they will experience zero gravity.

Seymour said that tourists will actually spend four of five days on the holiday, at Spaceport America (the launch hub). People must train in the spaceship White Knight for at least two days, he said, learning things like "how to keep your breakfast down" at 5 Gs. Rocketing into space and back takes only a few minutes each way in the two-hour trip, a jarring experience if you're not used to it, he said.

Part of his speech focused on finding design inspiration for things that haven't existed before. Seymour, who also designed the interiors of Cathay Pacific aircraft and high-speed trains for British Rail, said that he's drawn inspiration from various places, including early U.K. comics like Dan Dare and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a stewardess wears Velcro shoes to avoid floating in the cabin.

For the Virgin Galactic spacesuit, Seymour said that he's working on things like camera maps and oxygen lines to include in the helmet.

"As designers, if we want these new technologies, we need to think the whole thing through," Seymour said.

"As for space tourism, why would you want to fly into space with all these rich people?" he asked. "Because it expands our excitement and interest in the future...If we forget the thrill of big things we lose something in the process," he said.