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The Future has finally arrived

I have for some time been suspicious other big things were going on behind some scenes into which my vast network of spies and informers does not reach. I have had nods of confirmation when I voiced my opinions… but nothing specific as to precisely what was going on. The possibility of a Richard Branson and Burt Rutan alliance and something else secret going on in a Mojave hanger has been very much in the back of my mind.

Today, the Branson part of that became public fact. Whether there is more to it – and I believe there is – at least this much is now admitted openly. According to an article from the Dow Jones Newswire of 5:25 a.m this morning, emailed to me just a short while ago:

U.K. entrepreneur Richard Branson said Monday that Virgin Group (VGN.YY) plans to launch commercial space flights over the next few years.

Virgin has signed an agreement with pioneering aviation designer Burt Rutan to build an aircraft based on Rutan’s SpaceShipOne vessel, Branson said.

This I expected. I also have been wondering if they are secretly working on a next generation vehicle already. What I did not expect was major commercialization to happen quite this soon:

“Virgin has been in talks with Paul Allen and Bert throughout this year and in the early hours of Saturday morning signed a historical deal to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to build the world’s first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service,” Branson told a news conference.

The new service will be called Virgin Galactic and expects to fly 3,000 new astronauts within five years.

“Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but a business with the sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable,” Branson said. “Those privileged space pioneers who can afford to take our first flights will not only have the most awesome experience of their lives, but by stepping up to the plate first they will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality.”

Start saving me lads and lasses! We are bound for the stars and the government may go sit and rotate upon an aging ICBM.

UPDATE: Richard Branson was in the studio for the evening news on Channel 5 here; Channel 1 (which is really Channel 4!) gave far less coverage and used some subtle tricks to give it a negative spin.

First: Channel 5, my current favorite for UK news and not just beause the presenter is good looking. Which she is. Branson will be charging UKP 115K per person initially. He is buying into the venture with Allen and Rutan to the tune of UKP 15M. The first vehicles are to be ready for customers in three years. They will carry six. Five fare paying passengers and a pilot. It will retain the ‘shuttlecock’ re-entry mode. The fee will cover 3 days of pre-flight training with people like Buzz Aldrin; the flight will not be very long itself, with only a few minutes of freefall time. They will all fly past the 100km altitude which makes them civilian astronauts by current practice. Branson will fly on the first flight and says he might even take his very elderly father along if he is still healthy at age 90 because he does want to go. The first ship will be named… (drum roll)… the SS Enterprise.

The Ch5 presenter then went off into questions about UK rail schedules on Branson lines; the possibilities of polluting space – which Branson put into perspective by noting there are as many stars out there as there are grains of sand on the Earth; and the risk. Branson was up front that this is pioneering technology… but safe enough that he will fly, his elderly father might fly and even his kids would be allowed to go.

Ch1 on the other hand… the background music was rock with lyrics “Military Mission to Mars…” They played on the fear factor a great deal more and overall gave only a minute or two to the story. They were much more interested in what Gordon Brown had to say today.

25 comments to The Future has finally arrived

  • Bernie

    Astoundingly good news

  • Paul Marks

    Yes it is good news. I was surprised (and pleased) when I heard the news on the radio.

    However, doing business with Mr Branson may not be wise.

  • Daveon

    I’m still going to keep my skeptic hat on for a while, probably right up until I am going to have to eat it. The announcement doesn’t suggest there’s all that much “secret” going on. 3000 is similar to the number in the oft-touted Futron report on space tourism for the numbers of early adopters at the $150,000 price point. The BBC and CNN reports mention 5 vehicles, at a flight rate of around 1 a week, that’s pretty do-able with SS1 without new technology. Of course, a production run of SS1s derivatives might have a little more “oomphf” but it doesn’t need much more.

    The reports suggest an initial Branson investment of £15m, which is only a little more than Allen’s initial outlay – I’m curious about Allen’s stake and the nature of the shareholding in the business. In particular, what the RoI will be and whether or not it can bootstrap the development of an orbital vehicle.

    I’m also unsure of the robustness of the market when the first vehicle is lost.

    I’m still unconvinced by Space Tourism as the “killer app” of space dev.

  • 1327

    Interesting but I still have my doubts. Branson is a very good front man but he seems to have problems getting hold of large amounts of cash when required. If I remember correctly this is why he didn’t get to run the UK national lottery.

  • I hope this goes ahead and in the time frame he proposes. Nothing like having a little incentive to work hard. I would love to be on one of the first flights.

  • Tony Di Croce

    One step closer to making “The moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein a reality! Libertarian Revolution on the Moon. 🙂


  • Dale Amon

    The vehicle will necessarily be a second generation SS1. First off, the test program has found things which they will want to make more robust before flying lots of passengers. I do not expect a huge change in design, just an application of lessons learned. I would not yet hazard a guess as to an increase in the size of the vehicle for more passengers as that has knock on effects on WK as well. An upscaling for a few more passengers might not be that bad, but I would personally not do that until at least the Mark III. I would perhaps alternate enlarging the first state and enlarging the second stage. Build a little, test a little as the commercial space mantra goes.

    I certainly do not see Branson having problems raising a measly 15M. There are a few others out there behind the scenes as well. There are not just these two billionaires. Some of these guys have simply been watching for the first ones to pass the bar.

    I would be surprised if there is no private orbital flight before the 2008-2010 time frame. Much depends on the things behind scenes which are ‘black’ to me so far. And even if I did know of them I wouldn’t talk about it here until I had a release to do so.

    Unlike a career journalist, I am not as interested in the scoop and personal agrandizement as in the thing actually happening.

  • Dale Amon

    I’ve had some other thoughts and took a little time to ring and brainstorm with an industry friend. There is another option that Branson’s participation opens up. He could supply a 747. Not a new one of course. One of the ones that is about to be struck of charge and sold to Air Lower Slobovia.

    The issue with a 747 carrier is the mounting. I do not like the top mounting approach used for the early Shuttle Glide tests. There is too much of a choreography here for early commercial operations in my mind. You release the clamps and at the carrioer has to dive out from under the spaceplane; the space plane has to be damn sure the carrier is well out of the way before ignition; and there are aerodynamic issues with a large something on top of a 747. Look at the shuttle carrier planes and you’ll see the rudder mods.

    Wingmounts worked nicely for the X15; but the B52 is a BFA with wings re-enforced to carry major ordinance loads. There just isn’t that much room on the inner wing to tuck in a spaceship that can carry more than 1 person, let alone a larger SS1.

    The safest mode in my mind is the pure drop which Rutan went for. Dropping things off the bottom of a low speed (ie non-supersonic) platform is not a big deal. Engine starting from a falling glider is not a big deal and you are wll clear of the carrier in seconds; there is positive feedback… the release causes the carrier to rise away from the dropped vehicle.

    If something goes wrong, the SS1 just goes into en energy managment mode and glides home. No need to worry about what is underneath you when you are already deep in problem solving mode.

    The downside is that a 747 is not a bomber, doesn not have a huge amount of ground clearance and would require even more major underbelly mods than the OSC L1011. You’d have to recertify it.

    It’s a path to a much larger suborbital passenger vehicle much sooner, but could be quite costly because the 747 is a ‘complex type’.

    Discussion is welcome.

  • Daveon

    I can’t see a simple (cheap) way around the mounting problems – the centre fuel tank on a 747 is, if memory serves, at the bottom of the fuselage where you’d ideally mount the payload. Top mounting solves that, but you’ve got most of the issues outlined.

    Additionally the ceiling for a 747 is significantly below where White Knight operates – I’m not sure if the additional 15,000ft would be a significant issue performance wise, but I suspect you’ll need a larger engine and some strengthening of the structure.

    This is where it gets messy. I’ve worked on plant projects where seemingly minor changes to one part of the system had enormous knock on effects elsewhere.

  • I’m surprised that Branson took the bait. He’s been fishing in these waters for quite a while. He lucked out when he refused to invest in Gary Hudson’s Rotary Rockets. (Can you believe that Hudon just got contracts from both NASA and the DoD? More proof of the essential wisdom of those who trust the government to be STUPID, whenever possible.)

    The most important factor is that a production line for Rutan’s vehicles will be established. This could be what starts the process of building a vehicle that can do more than just reach suborbital altitude.

    As I’ve said before, Rutan has never built a supersonic aircraft before. If the problems they had with tha angle of attack on decent and the minor engine glitch were solved then he’d really have a solid basis for building SS2 and so on.

    Finally there is the engine question Jim Benson has got a remarkable rocket. I understand that he’s delived three examples of an improved model to Rutan for the attempt. It would be nice if he just kept on building and improving them.

  • zmollusc

    Oh well, at least the UK taxpayer will be doing his bit to promote private spaceflight (by rail subsidies to the grinning pullover).

  • MTFO

    Yet another developmental milestone of humanity as a species brought to us by “Evil Rich White Men (TM).”

    The ghost of Heinlein walks proudly among us today.

  • great. something else i can’t afford.

  • Dale Amon

    For those who are interested, I have added a great deal more information as an update to the article.

  • And I see Mr Branson has learned from his mistakes and lack of past ambition. He once founded an airline that flew between Britain and the US, and called it “Virgin Atlantic”, a name which now looks kind of quaint given that the airline now also flies to Africa, Asia and (shortly) Australia.

    “Virgin Galactic” will only run into problems when fights to the larger Magellanic Cloud are introduced. And I am not holding my breath on that one.

  • James

    The thought just struck me that I not just may, but very likely will fly into space within my lifetime.

    I’ve never thought that remotely possible before.

    Of course, Sky and ITV News presented this news item with smirks in the corners of their mouths, and knowing glances to their counterparts. Like most other things, they just don’t get it.

    My take is that if they could create a system that could move even small numbers of people across the globe more quickly than we currently can (especially with Concorde gone) then they’ll be on to a winner. Flying straight up and down will lose its lustre after a few trips (These aren’t the 1980’s anymore). But flying from Britain to Australia in a couple of hours will have immense practical benefit.

    Flying started with amateurs and quickly moved into the commercial realm. We need to do the same with spaceflight. Jaunts just won’t cut it. For long.

  • andy

    Nobody mentioned it but this technology would be just the thing for travel too. A semi-ballistic flight from, say, Minneapolis to Tokyo could be accomplished in about as much time as a flight from Minneapolis to Chicago. So you could get your astronaut wings and celebrate that very day on the other side of the world…

  • Daveon

    The problem with high speed world travel is the nature of the market, we should not forget the reasons why Concorde is no longer with us. I fly circa 100,000 miles a year – most of it is, at least, booked in economy class. I work for a reasonably successful company who turn over about $500m a year – we just have standing company orders that nobody, from CEO down, flies Business or more expensive on the company. We’re hardly unique in that, it’s just too damn expensive.

    Looking at even the marginal costs of extremely senior execs/lawyers etc… the market of those for whom this type of travel would be economic is pretty small.

    There might be a Netjets type market there, but to start flying these things like commercial aircraft, rather than the terms of the launch license which Rutan is using, will make the whole endeavour uneconomic.

  • Interesting but I still have my doubts. Branson is a very good front man but he seems to have problems getting hold of large amounts of cash when required. If I remember correctly this is why he didn’t get to run the UK national lottery.

    No, that was because the contest was run as a competitive tender; RB submitted a bid that involved lower returns to the government charities but was itself run as a not-for-profit, which didn’t meet the bid spec.

    He’s extremely good at using the Virgin name to leverage cash – hence Singapore Airlines’ 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic, Stagecoach’s 49% stake in Virgin Trains, and T-Mobile’s former 49% stake in Virgin Mobile. In all cases, the partner put up most of the cash and Virgin put in its name and its marketing department.

    OT: Dale, is Channel 4 really called Channel 1 in NI, or have I missed your point entirely?

  • Dale Amon

    Yep. I got caught out really badly on a post here at the time. I was away on a consulting job in San Francisco when it happened. BBC1 and Channel 4 swapped places! So BBC1 is on Channel4, and Channel 4 is on Channel 1…

    I came back, wrote an article about an ITV program… but it was actually a BBC program due to the channel swap and I got dumped on for the mistake.

    This is even more confusing to those in the US because they don’t even *have* a Channel 1 on the dial. The US TV VHF band runs from 2-13; there is actually a big frequency gap between channels in the middle of it btw… and then there is the UHF band which has lots of channels with poor receptions. Everyone uses dishes and cables these days over there anyway, so that doesn’t matter as much as it did awhile ago.

  • Dale Amon

    Back to the topic… Branson’s interest in space is not at all new. I believe even the company, Virgin Galactic, was actually formed years ago. Perhaps 6,8 even 10 years ago. If Company’s House is on line maybe someone could search. But since they charge fees for info I doubt it. You probably still have to walk into the local office and request it.

    Also, I have done the nonstop to LA a few times. I could really see people being willing to pay higher fees if they didn’t have to sit in a cattle car for 13 hours. I can understand the issues with traveling tourist class. Every company I ever worked with stuck me in cattle class as well; but when you start talking about trading not comfort, but HOURS of time it starts making more sense. SST did not have the fuel capacity for the routes where it would really have made sense in the Pacific. As I understand it, London/Paris-NY and London/Paris-DC were just about the outer range limits of the plane. There was also the problem of flying a heavy aircraft at supersonic speeds over landmasses. It was a non-starter.

    An future SS1 derivative bypasses all of that. It does not take a whole lot more fuel to go many thousands of miles than it does to get straight up for maximum altitude. Max distance in a vacuum would certainly be from a burn at 45 degrees; perhaps a little steeper in practice to spend more
    time out of the atmosphere. I would guess that SS1 with its current engines could make it most of the way across the US in the same amount of time as the straight up flights… although I would have to say ‘a craft with SS1 performance’ because the shuttlecock re-entry is not ideally suited to long distance travel.

    There is little problem with the boom since you are way the eff up there. I didn’t even hear the re-entry booms from SS1 and it was only about 20 miles norizontally distant at the time.

    Think of it. A single burn; coast through Zero G on a max distance trajectory; reach any spot on Earth in 45 minutes. The market may not be the average tourist market, but it certainly exists. I mean really… 45 minutes from JFK to London? Even adding in the carrier craft climb to altitude, the trip is still only 105 minutes. That gives us a whole new concept of global business. Have breakfast in New York; have a morning staff meeting; fly to London for an corporate international meeting; fly back to NY and have a supper time debriefing. That is a whole new ballgame.

  • Daveon

    Sure, hours are lost – but you are making the assumption that these are uncomfortable or unproductive hours. Well, ok, in Tourist they are. But I’ll admit that I get upgraded a fair amount to BA Club World – this gives me 8 hours to actually do some work: emails, reports, finish off presentations, do some strategic thinking etc… with no phones, email or other distractions like, well, this… I’d say that on an average flight to Seattle more than half the people in Club are doing work for the whole flight.

    I even find it possible to get a comfortable night’s sleep on the way back. I’ve heard that 1st is even better but at £8000 return LHR-SEA I don’t see myself flying that anytime soon.

    Concorde was at the limit of it’s range but 3hours was a hell of a fast crossing, certainly it put it in the range of flights I take to Scandanavia for a day’s business – but the problems still remain, this is why the Sonic Cruiser was a pipe dream.

    A “Netjets” approach might work – a Gulfstream II already cuts a hell of a lot off a trip and a supersonic/sub-orbitral might work. But it would be a reasonably limited market which I don’t see impacting on mass market travel.

    Sad to say, I think for the “typical” traveller we’ll be crawling along at 550mph for a very very long time.

    For me it probably wouldn’t help. My monthly journey is LHR-Seattle which is 8+hours depending on weather. Unless Seattle became a hub (unlikely), I’d be better off sticking to a lumbering BA direct flight, than taking a short cut to JFK or LAX and then clearing immigration/customs and doing the domestic leg.

  • Julian Morrison

    I’m thinking the first passengers for private semiballistic planes won’t be people (the whole specific impulse etc thing makes that hard). They’ll be documents, transplant organs, the diplomatic bag, hard drives full of confidential info… anything tiny but vitally important that simply must get (wherever) in no time flat.

  • Julian Morrison

    BTW, I must be in a crazy mood tonight.. you know the tradition in Japanese animation of having young cute schoolgirls pilot rocket planes? Well I’m thiking to myself “given weight:fuel ratio constraints, what gender and age pilot makes most sense?” Heh. But shaping the rockets like giant robots would’nt be such a hot idea. Win some, lose some…

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