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Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, discusses his company’s plans during a session f the 2005 International Space Development Conference. (credit: J. Foust)

Virgin Galactic and the future of commercial spaceflight

Since the successful flights of SpaceShipOne last fall, a number of new space tourism ventures have been announced, all promising to provide prospective customers with a suborbital spaceflight experience. The most recent example was announced last week with the formation of Planetspace, a venture using technology developed by one of the former X Prize competitors, Canadian Arrow, with funding proffered by former MirCorp investor Chirinjeev Kathuria. All seek to tap the interest in suborbital space tourism ignited, in part, by the SpaceShipOne flights—even if some of these new ventures are a little sketchy on technical and financial details.

The one space tourism venture that has garnered the most interest in recent months, however, has been Virgin Galactic. Days before the first Ansari X Prize flight, Virgin announced it was partnering with Scaled Composites and Mojave Aerospace Ventures—the joint venture of Scaled and financier Paul Allen—to create a suborbital space tourism business flying vehicles based upon SpaceShipOne. Since then the company has released few details about its plans: the news section of Virgin Galactic’s web site was last updated on October 4, when SpaceShipOne made its final, prize-winning flight. However, during Saturday’s sessions of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Virgin Galactic executives offered a host of new details about their plans for suborbital spaceflights and beyond.

The Virgin Galactic experience

Even though the first commercial flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo are still nearly three years away—spring 2008 under current plans—the company has paid considerable attention to the experience its customers will have. “What we’re doing is giving you a two-hour experience of going into space that will only require a few days of training,” said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.

“What we’re doing is giving you a two-hour experience of going into space that will only require a few days of training,” said Whitehorn.

That experience begins almost immediately after customers arrive at Virgin’s training facility, initially to be located in Mojave, California. Because the cabins of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft—White Knight Two or “Eve”, after Richard Branson’s mother—will be identical, the new group of customers will be given the opportunity to fly on the aircraft during the launch of the previous group of tourists. “They’ll get the excitement of going up to 50,000 feet [15,000 meters], which not many of us have been able to do,” said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s vice president for astronaut relations, “and they’ll also be able to watch from prime position the launch of the spaceship that’s going before them.”

Other aspects of the training will include extensive time in simulators, so that “everything will feel familiar” when it comes time to take the actual flight, Attenborough said, as well as flights in light aircraft to acclimate people to some of the g-forces they will feel during the actual flight. Customers will also be trained to operate a “personal communications console” that they will use during the flight to record their experience.

The flight itself will have the same basic characteristics as the SpaceShipOne flights last year: after being dropped from the carrier aircraft, a rocket motor will propel SpaceShipTwo into suborbital space, after which the spacecraft will glide back to a runway landing in Mojave. However, SpaceShipTwo will fly a little higher, with a peak altitude between 360,000 and 400,000 feet (110,000 and 122,000 meters). That trajectory will give passengers about six minutes of weightlessness. During that time the passengers will be able to float about the cabin, connected to their seats by a tether that will make it easy for them to return when the g-forces of reentry build. Each passenger will also have their own large window from which they will be able to see the Earth and space. The cabin seats will be designed to ensure the comfort of passengers during the peak g-loads of launch and reentry, which will reach 5 g.

Neither Whitehorn nor Attenborough, though, would disclose very many details about SpaceShipTwo itself. Attenborough noted that the vehicle will “most likely” carry six passengers and two pilots; the exact configuration will be finalized in the next few weeks. Whitehorn noted that SpaceShipTwo will incorporate two of the more unique design features of its predecessor, the “feathering” of its tail section during reentry as well as its hybrid rocket motor. “But SpaceShipTwo will not look like SpaceShipOne,” he added.

Building the customer base

Virgin Galactic has received a strong reaction to its planned suborbital spaceflights: Attenborough said that nearly 30,000 people have signed up on the company’s web site to date, indicating their interest in making a reservation and paying a deposit. “The numbers are quite staggering,” he said. (Virgin and the media have come under some criticism for assuming that everyone who signs up will indeed fly at the current price of about $200,000 per flight; see “Banking on £805 million of promises”, The Space Review, March 7, 2005.)

While it will incorporate feathering and a hybrid engine, “SpaceShipTwo will not look like SpaceShipOne,” said Whitehorn.

In the near term, though, Virgin is focusing its attention on finding those prospective passengers who are the most willing to be among the first 100 to fly on SpaceShipTwo, a group that Attenborough called the “Virgin Galactic Founders”. “I’m pleased to say that we’re pretty much at that 100 figure now,” he said. “We’re just preparing to take deposits from those people, and most of them have signed contracts.”

Those 100 Founders, he said, come from 18 countries, with about half coming from the US, followed by the UK and Australia. (The nearly 30,000 who have signed up on the web site, in contrast, come from over 120 countries.) The founders are also overwhelmingly—about 85 to 90 percent—male, Attenborough said.

While the identities of all of these Founders have not been disclosed, Whitehorn and Attenborough did mention a couple names during their presentations. One of them is Adrian Reynard, a British race car designer. Whitehorn described Reynard as one of the leading experts in the use of composite materials, which are also used extensively in Virgin’s spacecraft: “It’s been a great confidence booster to all of us, and to Burt [Rutan] personally, that Adrian Reynard was one of the first people to sign up for this.” Another of the Founders is actress-turned-entrepreneur Victoria Principal, best known as one of the stars of the ’80s TV drama “Dallas”. Whitehorn said that she will serve as an “ambassador” for Virgin Galactic as well to encourage more women to sign up.

One challenge Virgin faces is determining in which order those 100 Founders fly. The first commercial flight is already spoken for: that flight will include Rutan and Branson, as well as Branson’s father, Ted, who will be 90 if the flight takes place as currently scheduled. The order of the rest will be determined in a random drawing later this year. The company will make some effort to keep groups together: Whitehorn noted that the Founders include a “honeymoon couple” as well as a French banker and his family.

If all goes well those Founders will fly very quickly after the company begins commercial service: Whitehorn estimates that Virgin Galactic will take about 450 people into space during its first year of operations, roughly the same number that have flown in space since 1961. “We will double that number in year two, flying over 1,000 people,” he added.

Safety first

One of the major concerns of suborbital vehicle developers has been impressing upon potential passengers, as well as the general public, the inherently risky nature of spaceflight. Companies have talked about educating prospective passengers about the dangers of spaceflight and screening customers to find the ones most willing to accept those risks. Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, is trying to make it clear to customers how safe their SpaceShipTwo flights will be.

“The north star of this project is safety,” said Whitehorn. “Safety is really at the top of people’s lists as to why they think they’re interested in flying a suborbital spaceflight.”

“Safety is really at the top of people’s lists as to why they think they’re interested in flying a suborbital spaceflight,” according to Whitehorn.

Whitehorn noted that when Virgin decided to get into the aviation business more than two decades ago, having already established its brand in the music business, the company made a conscious effort to emphasize safety, patterning itself after Qantas, the Australian airline known for its excellent safety record. “We now have the best safety record of any airline in the world,” he said, noting that none of Virgin’s three airlines has ever had a fatal accident. That unblemished safety record has transferred to Virgin’s passenger rail business in the UK, with no fatal accidents during a period in recent years when the British rail industry overall had a “horrendous” safety record. “For us, safety is at the core of our business, it is part of the brand itself.”

It was that commitment to safety, Whitehorn explained, that led Virgin to back an air-launched system instead of a ground-launched system. “If you’re going to commercialize this business, you’ve got to be able to take thousands of people into space safely,” he said. “Any system which is groundbased has intrinsic issues with safety which an air-launched system does not have. It is intrinsically not very safe to sit a human being above a bomb of tons and tons and tons of liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen or whatever liquid propellant you’re using.”

Whitehorn said that back in 1999, when Virgin was considering investing in Rotary Rocket Company, a venture developing a ground-launched orbital RLV, he and his colleagues sketched out what their ideal space tourism vehicle would look like. “We actually drew on a napkin, at the Voyager restaurant in Mojave Airport, a B-52 and something that actually looked remarkably similar to what Burt eventually designed in SpaceShipOne. That’s the way to do suborbital, because we can take out so much of the risk, and manage the rest of the risk very well.” It wasn’t until a separate trip to Mojave in 2002, when Virgin was working with Scaled on the Global Flyer aircraft, that Whitehorn found out about SpaceShipOne, at which point he alerted Branson and set the wheels in motion for last year’s agreement.

Whitehorn’s opinion of competitors developing ground-launched systems contained a mix of disdain and concern. The former comes from the pronouncements of some companies who claim to start offering flights as soon as next year. “It’s very difficult to criticize people,” he said, “but there are some other people out there who say that they’re going to be launching suborbital spaceflights next year and they’re taking people’s money, but they can’t tell you how they’re going to do it, or where their financing is coming from. And that I regard as immoral.”

The concern stems from worries of what might happen if one of those ventures does manage to start launching paying passengers, but has an accident. “One of the biggest risks we face is if someone in the next three years decides to put somebody into space using ground-based rocketry and they have an accident,” he said. “Because the most likely thing that would result in is AST [the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation] being forced by Congress to shut down the whole program. If that happens, I think we have a real problem on our hands.”

Suborbital and beyond

Safety worries aside, Whitehorn and Attenborough are optimistic about the long-term success of Virgin Galactic. While the initial ticket prices will start around $200,000, Whitehorn predicts that by the fifth year of operations those prices will drop to around $50,000, and by the eighth or ninth year fall to $25,000, as the flight rate increases and economies of scale drive down operating costs.

Whitehorn’s biggest fear is that someone will have a fatal accident before Virgin Galactic starts operations: “Because the most likely thing that would result in is AST being forced by Congress to shut down the whole program.”

Those prices will fall in part because of the investment the Founders and other early fliers will provide by paying the initial high ticket prices. “It’s their commitment and privilege that will allow many thousands of others to do this at lower prices,” said Attenborough. “This is not equated to driving a new Ferrari down Rodeo Drive. They recognize that what they’re doing is not only great, but it is important, it is significant. They are proud to pave the way to make it possible for others to do this in the years to come.”

For those people who find even a $25,000 price tag a little too steep, there are other options. Whitehorn noted that Virgin is considering financing options once ticket prices reach those levels, in much the same way that automakers offer financing for purchasers of new cars. Virgin Galactic is also planning a game show where participants from around the world will compete for a chance to fly, as well as an online game of skill—which, unlike online gambling, is legal throughout the US—for ticket giveaways. It may also be possible to redeem Virgin frequent flyer miles for a ticket: Whitehorn said no value has been placed yet on a ticket, but will likely exceed the current top award in its program—a vacation at Virgin’s exclusive Necker Island resort in the Caribbean—which goes for one million miles.

Virgin Galactic will initially operate out of Mojave, but sees that location as only a temporary venue as the airspace there becomes more crowded. “California is encroaching on Mojave more and more,” Whitehorn said. He noted that Virgin has had discussions with New Mexico and Florida about setting up operations at spaceports in those states. In addition, Virgin is looking at additional spaceports outside the US, most notably Australia. Virgin would like to set up operations in Europe as well but congested airspace and poor weather make it difficult to find a suitable site; Morocco may be an alternative, if technology transfer issues can be resolved.

Virgin is open to other uses of suborbital spaceflight, such as point-to-point transportation, although Whitehorn noted that they are not actively pursuing it because they would then be treated as an airline from a regulatory standpoint, with strict limitations on the flights that a foreign-owned airline can offer in the US. Instead, Virgin is looking at the possibility of orbital spaceflight. “If, by year five, we’ve got this business into profit—and we believe we can do it before year five—we will embark on the next phase of the project, which is to create an orbital commercial system,” Whitehorn said.

If that happens, Whitehorn believes such a system will do far more than provide another source of revenue for Virgin Galactic. “I’m a firm believer that this will provide the foundation for the actual colonization of space,” he said. “That is really what this project is all about to us.”


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