Virgin Galactic Aims High with Commercial Spaceflight Plans

by

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — While the business plan being developed by Virgin Galactic — the company that intends to take commercial customers into space — focuses on suborbital space flights in the near-term, the company also is developing plans to eventually offer point-to-point rocket travel around the globe, as well as to space hotels, and eventually even trips to the Moon.

Sections of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceliner already dot the factory floors at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. — all under the watchful eye of aerospace designer Burt Rutan.

Rutan and his team built and flew the piloted SpaceShipOne on a trio of suborbital flights in 2004, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse in the process. Now they are hard at work fulfilling the Virgin Galactic order for commuter-class spaceliners.

British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, entered into a partnership with Rutan in 2005 creating The Spaceship Co. to build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.

Advance ticket sales for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights already are under way at a price of $200,000 a seat. And here in New Mexico, the design of Spaceport America is under way to handle the space-bound public traffic by 2009-2010.

Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations, said the company is planning to transport 50,000 people into space over a 10-year period. Tai trained as a pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force and started at Virgin as an airline pilot for Virgin Atlantic Airways before embarking on special projects for Branson.

Working on the Virgin Galactic project from its conception, Tai plans to fly the first commercial flight of the firm’s spaceship as one of the pilots. His current tasks include supervising the design and construction of the new passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo.

“What this is about is some seven minutes of black sky; about four minutes of zero-gravity and about training to become an astronaut,” Tai said in an interview during the 2nd International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, held here prior to the October 20-21 Wirefly X Prize Cup festivities.

Maximize the experience

There’s no doubt in his mind that the experience will be a first-rate and a full-service package — akin to the luxurious pampering already given Virgin travelers.

“You can sit somewhere in a box strapped into an ejection seat and give them zero view,” Tai said. “That’s no way to go into space. We’ll be giving them a really sexy training experience. We’re providing large windows that maximize the view … the freedom to float around in zero-gravity … to maximize the experience. I don’t think we’re in danger of under-delivery.”

For their $200,000 a person receives an all-accommodations three-day package, with hotel, training and transport to and from the spaceport site all included. “We’ll throw in meals and champagne,” Tai added.

Early adopters

Tai said that he’s aware that there is still skepticism in some circles about public space travel, criticism that it is more stunt than a stable business. Branson is keen, he responded, on developing a legacy and becoming the first-ever spaceliner operator and owner.

“There will be incremental improvements to the technology,” Tai predicted. Initially, SpaceShipTwo, like its predecessor, will utilize the oomph of a hybrid rocket motor. But once the industry is under way, Virgin Galactic will look for other types of motors to plug in the back of spaceliners.

“Then the seat prices will tumble,” Tai said.

Branson plans to plow back money gained from early flights into extensions of space tourism, he added.

“There will be fuel to fan the invention … and the fuel is money,” Tai said.

Safety in the front seat

It would be wrong to think of SpaceShipTwo as a scaled-up SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipTwo will be larger in size than both the suborbital rocket plane and its White Knight carrier mothership, and the company is taking care to build in extra margin for safety systems that will include redundant and backup systems.

Lofting six passengers and two pilots up to the edge of space means putting safety in the front seat and a rigorous testing and shakeout program of the hardware is planned, Tai said.

“From a business perspective,” Tai suggested, “I would very much like [Rutan] to spend the least amount of money and do it in the shortest period of time. But that’s not the fundamental requirement. It’s producing the safest, best-performing ship. If I have to wait an extra year for that, I’ll take the pressure from everyone … to make sure that we get the best possible product.”

Dreamy job

Tai said by the time the first systems are delivered to Virgin Galactic, something in the range of $150 million will have been spent.

Then an operational structure must be put in place. Facilities are required to handle early operations in Mojave, Calif., and at Spaceport America in New Mexico. A team of exceptionally competent and skilled personnel to operate the spaceliners also are needed.

“And that’s going to cost money as well. I believe we’ll spend between $225 million and $250 million” to reach that operating point, Tai said, perhaps starting in 2009 but also depending on how the testing program goes.

There will be a Virgin Galactic cadre of spaceliner pilots. They are being drawn from Virgin’s network of airlines. “We pay top dollar. And that attracts some of the best pilots,” Tai said. Those selected for space travel duty will be picked after a meticulous training and preparation course.

“We’ll ensure that we get the best possible pilots. It’ll be a dreamy job,” Tai emphasized.

Passionate passengers

Tai speculates that hundreds of spaceships might be needed to handle passionate passengers from around the world who hunger for space travel.

Beyond the New Mexico spaceport — once the case for safety and turnaround time is made with the SpaceShipTwo system — perhaps semi-permanent facilities, even local municipal airports, could handle space travel operations, Tai suggested.

“It’s clearly a goal of Virgin Galactic of being a spaceline operator, not just for same-point-to-same-point space tourism,” Tai said. “We want to go point-to-point on the planet … with exceptional style and safety.”

Getting cheap access to low Earth orbit, Tai continued, will be leveraged from the ability to globally hop about. “That’s where the real market is. It will be done off the back of point-to-point … not off going straight to low Earth orbit.”

With that technology in hand, it is onward to orbital destinations, space hotel stopovers, and to the Moon and beyond, Tai said. “That’s the big step, to break free of the surly bonds of Earth.”