Suborbital space race? Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin will get there when they get there

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This article originally appeared in the June 5, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.


There are a few things a would-be suborbital space tourist must have.

One, obviously, is a bank account large enough to afford the six-figure ticket price for a spaceflight.

He or she also needs a tolerance of the risks inherent in spaceflight and be in at least decent health to handle the g-forces of launch and reentry.

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Perhaps most importantly, though, a space tourist needs patience.

More than a decade ago, Virgin Galactic started selling tickets for suborbital flights of SpaceShipTwo, still in its early phases of development. They started with a group of 100 customers, called “Founders,” who paid $200,000 up front. Among those Founders is Namira Salim, a Pakistani-born artist and adventurer who has traveled to both the North and South Poles.

Neither Salim nor any other Founder customers have flown to space yet. However, Salim is not impatient. “Yes, it has taken a bit longer,” she said in an interview in Washington in May after an event by her foundation, Space Trust. “I’ve never complained because, you know, we have to do it right.”

When Virgin Galactic signed up Salim and the other Founders, it planned to start commercial flights in 2008 or 2009, a date that steadily slipped as SpaceShipTwo suffered from development delays. A crash during an October 2014 test flight of the first SpaceShipTwo, destroying the vehicle and killing its co-pilot, further delayed the program

Salim said the company has kept her and fellow customers informed about the setbacks and other delays, including inviting them to various events for updates. “I don’t criticize them because I feel that we have been part of the process,” she said. “They’ve been keeping us very busy.”

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic rolled out its second SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Unity, in February 2016. That vehicle is in the midst of a flight test program, with its fifth and most recent glide flight taking place June 1 to test how the vehicle handled with a different center of gravity.

That test, the company said in a statement, marked the end of the “initial glide test portion” of their test program. Virgin Galactic is now “moving into a period of ground-based activity focused on preparation for fuelled and then powered flights.”

Virgin Galactic doesn’t give specific schedules about when SpaceShipTwo will enter commercial service, or even begin the next phase of flight testing. That hasn’t stopped company founder Sir Richard Branson in the past from making predictions about when he expected to fly on the vehicle’s first commercial flight. But even he has become wary about offering a time frame.

Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson is a leading competitor in an undeclared suborbital space race
Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson. Credit: Virgin Galactic

“I’ve made the mistake of giving dates before and being wrong,” Branson said during an on-stage interview April 28 at the headquarters of The Washington Post. A few weeks earlier, though, Branson had suggested in another interview he would be “very disappointed” if SpaceShipTwo hadn’t started commercial service by the end of 2018. Was that, his interviewer at the Post event asked, his schedule?

“If you say so,” Branson responded. “That sounds good.”

Blue Origin

Virgin’s only near-term competition for suborbital space tourism is Blue Origin. That company, founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, is in some respects ahead of Virgin Galactic: its New Shepard vehicle flew five consecutive successful test flights between November 2015 and October 2016 from the company’s private test site in West Texas.

At the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April, the company brought the propulsion module that powered those five test flights. It also displayed a model of the capsule, with the interior outfitted for tourist flights. Conference attendees stood in long lines throughout the conference, in weather that alternated between sunny and snowy, for a chance to go inside.

Inside the module are six chairs, lining the interior wall of the capsule. “You’re very horizontal, so it absorbs a lot of the shock and the g-forces on your way up,” said Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, during a tour of the model at the conference. Those forces will peak at about 3 Gs on the way up and 5 to 5.5 Gs on the way down.

Each seat is next to a window — the largest ever flown on a spacecraft, the company notes — and a monitor showing the progress of the flight. That flight will be brief: about 11 minutes from liftoff to the capsule’s parachute landing, including about four minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike SpaceShipTwo, which will have two pilots on board, there will be no crew on a New Shepard flight. The six tourists will be assisted from the ground by what Cornell called “crewmember seven,” the Blue Origin employee who will train people prior to the flight. “He or she will be there in your ear” during the flight providing guidance, she said, including when it’s safe to get out of the seats and when it’s time to strap in for reentry.

Suborbital space race? Not exactly.

Given the attention to detail Blue Origin has put into the flight experience, such as designing the window frames to also serve as handholds during the zero-g phase of the flight, one might assume that the company is ready to start selling tickets. Yet Blue Origin seems in no rush.

Blue Origin's New Shepard has flown five consecutive test flights between November 2015 and October 2016, but the company's not ready to start selling tickets.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard has flown five consecutive test flights between November 2015 and October 2016, but the company’s not ready to start selling tickets. Credit: Blue Origin

“I always remind the team that we’re not racing,” Bezos said when asked about his schedule during a press conference at Space Symposium. “This vehicle is going to carry humans. We’re going to make it as safe as we can make it.”

Blue Origin previously stated commercial New Shepard flights could begin in 2018, a date Bezos said is still feasible. “I’m hopeful, by the way, that could still be 2018,” he said. “We’ll see. It’s really going to be when we’re ready.”

Blue Origin isn’t even selling tickets yet. “We’ll probably start taking down payments and selling tickets when we’re closer to commercial operations,” Bezos said, likely after the next New Shepard vehicles the company is building complete a program of uncrewed test flights, which have yet to begin.

And the price of those tickets? “I don’t know yet what the ticket price will be. We’re working on that,” he said. “We’ll figure something out. We still have time. It’s not an urgent thing to figure out because we’re not ready to sell tickets anyway.”

Salim, meanwhile, continues to be patient as Virgin Galactic continues SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. She’s busy with Space Trust, which plans to use space as a tool for diplomacy, starting with a conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this fall in New York. Ultimately, she said, she’d like to hold a similar meeting in space, perhaps as soon as 2030.

Does she think she’ll get to fly in space herself soon, given Branson’s recent comments? “I hope so!” she said. “Maybe 2020, I don’t know. He says 2018, but let’s see.”