Entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson already has put his money where his mouth is as far as his interest in commercial human spaceflight goes, investing a small chunk of his personal fortune in the Virgin Galactic space tourism venture.
Next year he plans to lend his body to the cause as well, flying as one of the first passengers — possibly with his grown children, Holly and Sam — aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.
Developed by the Spaceship Company, originally a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and high-tech aviation boutique Scaled Composites and solely owned by Virgin Galactic since 2012, SpaceShipTwo is designed to take paying passengers to the edge of space beginning next year. The vehicle, which takes off aboard a specially designed carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, essentially is a larger version of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that made history almost a decade ago by becoming the first nongovernment craft to take a person beyond the internationally recognized Earth-space boundary — 100 kilometers in altitude — and back.
Now, after nearly a decade of investment and, according to Branson, a lot of struggle, Virgin Galactic is on the cusp of commercial operations. SpaceShipTwo, which can accommodate two pilots and six passengers, has successfully completed two rocket-powered flights to date, with the first suborbital tests slated to begin early next year.
Meanwhile, the company already has booked more than 500 customers for thrill rides now selling for $250,000 apiece, a price Branson hopes to drive down considerably through reusability.
Branson spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz in Mojave, Calif., where SpaceShipTwo is undergoing flight testing.
You have a long track record with a lot of different businesses. How has this one been different so far from the other things that you’ve done?
Well, it took me three months to launch Virgin Atlantic Airlines. We’re now in our 10th year of building the Spaceship Company. We knew it was going to be difficult and it’s lived up to that. It’s been really challenging to get this far. But if it was easy, it would have been done many, many, many years ago and it’s going to be all the more satisfying when we finally pull it off in the next handful of months.
I never went into this thinking I want to do this to make lots of money, but strangely I think this could be the most successful business Virgin has ever launched, if it goes according to plan. We’re well ahead of everybody else as far as taking people into space. There are thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who would love to go to space if they could afford it.
How do you tap that market?
One of the things we’re doing here is trying to make everything much more affordable. So for instance, the initial rocket which I’ll be flying on to space will be thrown away afterward. Within six to nine months, we will be using rockets that will have capability of being used maybe up to 1,000 times, but definitely up to 100 times. That will bring the cost of space travel down dramatically.
The cost to ride now is $250,000. How much less will future flights aboard reusable vehicles cost?
Considerably less. Ten years from now a lot more people are going to be able to afford to go.
Also, within 18 months we’re going to be sending up orbital vehicles that are going to be dropping off satellites. Virgin Galactic can put up more satellites in three months than there are satellites in space today. That will be a very important business aspect.
Do you expect that to start before the passenger flights?
No, people will be flying first.
When you go up for the first time, are you still planning to fly with your family?
Most likely. My daughter just got married so we’ll have to see whether she’s pregnant at the time, but she’s hoping to go up with me. She’s hoping to get pregnant, so we’ll see which one comes first. My son won’t have that problem. My wife and I have difficulty getting on an airplane.
I believe that you, as a pilot, are able to fly on SpaceShipTwo test flights, but of course you wouldn’t be able to take your family along. Are you thinking about doing that?
I would love to go on the test flight if I’m allowed to go. We will cross that bridge over the next month or two.
So it’s possible you’d fly with Scaled Composites’ test flight crew?
It’s possible. I don’t know. We’re just debating it at the moment. I would love to go out with Holly and Sam if possible and I think that’s slightly more likely. And if that’s the case then it’s more likely that the test flights will take place in January- February and then I’d go up in June-July, something like that.
If everything goes OK in the test program, once you fly would the first group of paying passengers follow?
Yes, that’s the plan.
You’re an adventurer, but doesn’t this make you a bit nervous?
I think we’ve been through quite a lot of pain to get here and I really do believe that we’ve got a very, very, very safe spaceship and a very safe mother ship. It’s 60 years safer than the [early] NASA spaceships — the technology is just that much more modern. But look, anybody embarking on this trip is going to have a few nerves when they get on it.
What are you doing to turn what has been an experience primarily undertaken only by highly trained, professional astronauts into something for nonprofessionals?
I think everybody who signs up, especially the initial 500 or 1,000 astronauts, know that this is the birth of a new space program. I think they all understand the risk that goes with that. I think every single person you talk to would all like to go on the first flight, where obviously it’s more sensible to go on the 10th or the 20th or the 30th. I think you’ll find that everyone who has signed up did so with eyes open.
But we as a spaceship company have just got to do everything in our power to avoid anything going wrong. That’s what our engineers have worked on and our design team has worked on and we hope that to be the case.
The people who have put down money for the first flights of SpaceShipTwo pretty much have the resources to do what they like and get what they want. How have they been reacting to the changes and delays in the test program?
We have this wonderful sort of astronaut club where we go to Necker Island [Branson’s island in the British Virgin Islands], we go to South Africa together, and this has been going on for a number of years. All of those people are part of that club and quite a lot of them participate.
Actually, I think they would almost rather that the program was delayed because they enjoy the buildup. The foreplay sometimes can be just as exciting as the climax.
So, I think for the vast majority of them, they’re fine. We lost one Irishman, but I think otherwise we’ve pretty well held everybody and they’ve been very understanding.
It is rocket science, and rocket science is as difficult as people make out. We’ve had 10 years of struggles and now we’re beginning to get a very big grin on our faces as we get so close.
That club is just for this first group? You’re not planning on having every customer who flies on Virgin Galactic over at your house on Necker Island?
Yes, just this early group.
How much has it cost since when you first signed with Scaled Composites 10 years ago to launch this project to what you expect to be spending by the time you have the first commercial flight?
Ummm — I’m not very good with figures.
I can’t believe that.
I’m not actually — I failed my elementary maths — but it will be on the order of $400 million, something like that.
And that came from Virgin and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments?
Yes, roughly 50-50 split. It’s a big investment, but it’s the same sort of price of buying one 747 from Boeing, to put it into perspective, for our airline. But what we’ve created is the first spaceship company to send people into space, a commercial spaceship company. We believe we can then start looking at creating point-to-point air/space travel in the future. We’ve created a company that’s capable of putting a whole array of satellites in space, which will transform things for people back on Earth in a whole different manner of ways. I’m willing to forecast that if you look 10 years for now it will perhaps be the most successful Virgin company that we ever produced.