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Virgin in Space

According to The Australian, Richard Branson wants an Australian site for his new suborbital space planes. That in itself would not be particularly unusual: others before him have seen and considered the Australian launch advantage.

A final design for Virgin’s flagship spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise, is expected to be signed off on this year. A US base is expected to be training 3000 astronauts for the $US190,000 sub-orbital flights in as little as three years.

Sir Richard said in Sydney that the plan was to build sufficient spaceships to allow the establishment of separate bases around the world.

It may not have done so for many of you, but this sets off tinkling bells and flashing lights for me. If you are at all close to the space industry you will know there is an excellent near equator site in Australia where there has long been interest for a Spaceport. I have not been following it much lately, but I do remember there was an intent to launch Russian rockets from there. The current status is neither here nor there: Australia is the only Anglospherian country with existing space infrastructure and near equatorial lands.

When a spaceship takes off it gets an extra boost from the Earth’s rotational velocity. The further from the equator you are, the less advantage you get. Imagine you were at the North Pole. The Earth is rotating your spaceship on the pad once every 24 hours and when you launch, your engines have to supply 100% of the velocity required for orbit.

If you are at an intermediate geographical location, like KSC at Cape Canaveral, the rotating planet is moving your spaceship at a significant eastward velocity before it even leaves the ground.

If you are at the equator, you are already traveling at a rate of 1/24 the Earth’s circumference per hour. An equatorial or near-equatorial site is ideal for a first generation orbital spaceship . It gives a starting velocity of a little under a half km/sec eastwards on your fully loaded spaceship before it even leaves the ground. This is a big win. You need roughly 7.5 km/sec to make orbit: you may think of the Earth’s equator as a free, reuseable first stage.

So. Inference one: Branson is already looking ahead to orbital flights.

Now notice he is considering more than one spaceport location. He is not talking of abandoning the US launch site in the Mojave. He wants to add another site for suborbital fares. He would have two sites at which he could operate suborbital space ship take offs and landings.

Branson is in the airline business and knows better than I what the size of the market is for people who want to take a short suborbital tourist hop… versus the number of high value business people who would pay extraordinary fares to reach the antipodes in 45 minutes. British Air refused to sell him the Concordes, but Richard might just laugh last and best.

Inference two: I expect we will at some point see a proof of concept flight of a Rutan vehicle which leaves the Mojave on a suborbital intercontinental ballistic trajectory and lands in Australia. If he has a vehicle capable of carrying 6 paying passengers for tourism, that same vehicle with a lone pilot can probably boost onto a trans-Pacific trajectory.

Branson, Rutan and Allen are smart cookies. They are not going to advertise their plans ahead of time. But if you are going to go into space and make it pay, this is the way to do it:

Step 1) Fund a suborbital test vehicle and get it partly paid for by winning the X-Prize. [DONE]

Step 2) Build a suborbital joy ride vehicle that mostly pays for itself going up and down. [IN PROGRESS]

Step 3) Fly the first intercontinental suborbital flight with that vehicle in a stripped down single pilot mode.

Step 4) Build a slightly larger vehicle that mostly pays for itself via trans-Pacific flights.

Step 5) Use that American built vehicle in a stripped down, single pilot mode to fly from an equatorial base into orbit. Perhaps it will be necessary to build a special vehicle to deal with higher re-entry heat loading, but there are now two revenue streams on line, not to mention Bob Bigelow’s $50M America’s Space Prize.

Step 6) Add another revenue stream. Sell astronaut transport services to NASA about the time the Shuttles are sent off to museums. Perhaps also sell delivery services to Bob Bigelow’s inflatable orbital facility for yet another stream.

Step 7) Earth orbit is “half way to anywhere”. The solar system is now your oyster.

As they say in the tech business, “It’s a plan!”

26 comments to Virgin in Space

  • 1327

    Does anyone know what is happening with Steve Bennet and his Starchaser rocket ? This was said to be a British contender for the X prize and Steve Bennet appeared on a lot of TV programs but now he seems to have vanished.

  • Dale Amon

    Except for established “players” X-Prize was very much a first past the post operation. Until serious revenue streams come on line, secondary players are going to have trouble raising capital. Most of the guys with that sort of money to burn are doing it themselves or else working with someone like Scaled Composites or XCOR who have actually demonstrated flying hardware.

  • Hi Dale

    Branson’s plan sounds great, he could perhaps even buy an insurance policy at a reasonable price.

    But is anyone in the US government going to give him an export permit for privately owned ICBM? I trust the Aussies not to sell it to the PRC, but will the export control bureaucrats at State do the same? Or for that matter will they trust Branson?

  • Stehpinkeln

    Taylor, you are slightly off base on how the law works in America. As long as it’s NOT against the law, you can do it. AFAIK, it’s not against the Law to build your own rockets. If someone says it is then ask them what section of the penal code they are citing. All laws have numbers describing the code section they are in. If it doesn’t have a number, it is NOT a law, but a rule or a regulation, or maybe a ruling, which is the interpetation of a Law by some judge. But until Congress makes a law, owning your own launch system isn’t illegal. If there is a rule against it, then Lawyers fire off injunctions for as long as someone is willing to pay them to do so. If the people that don’t want Branson to own his own ICBM have more money for Lawyers then Branson does, then they will win. Considering the fundrasing potential of Wall street and the Fact that it wasn’t the European governments that developed the world back in the 15th and 16th century , but european business, I think that Branson will win.
    There is for all pratical purposes unlimited natural resources in the Astroid belt. The hard part is getting out of the gravity well. Once in orbit, it only takes a little more energy (comparativly) to get to another part of the solar system. It won’t be fast using an pizo-electric or magnetic drive, but they will get you there. Even solar pressure will eventually do the trick. The stock markets will love it. What trader wouldn’t sell his soul to have put 8 bucks into the pot to help buy Manhatten. How many trillions would that 8 $ US be worth today?

  • Sorry Mr S.

    There is no law against owning your own launch system. There is however something called ITAR (International Trade in Arms Regulations) and they are enforced ferociously.

  • Della

    The Virgin Galactic craft only goes Mach 3, escape velocity is Mach 33 or so. The only way that thing would get into orbit is if you launched it from fairly high up on a space elevator or took it to the moon. Being in Australia will make no difference to it’s complete inability to get into space. I don’t know why y’all are so concerned about China getting ahold of it, they’ve been launching satellites into orbit for 35 years, a much more difficult thing to do, they aim to put a man on the moon in 5 years.

  • Della

    I wrote:

    they aim to put a man on the moon in 5 years.

    Opps, misread, it’s an unmanned vehicle in the moon.

  • nuts. I want to buy stock, but nothing available. I want to be an owner of the first private space ‘enterprise’.

  • Bruce Hoult

    While the idea of a revenue-generating craft being occasionally flown light so as to be able to perform a more taxing mission is a very good one, the missions you mention are just *too* far apart to be possible.

    If flown for maximum range, the SS1 (or similar X-prize class vehicles from XCOR or Pioneer or others) would probably have a range of about 500 km. SS2 is supposed to go a bit higher (150 km), so would be able to go further, but I’d be surprised if it would go much more than 1000 km with just a pilot on board.

    You also have the rather serious problem that reentry speeds are much higher on such a trajectory than they are on a straight up and down flight. That may make the difference between adequate and inadequate thermal protection systems.

    So the idea of leveraging yourself to bigger steps is good, but the steps need to be smaller. You could work up incrementally and continuously to trans-US flights (Seattle/Miami 4400 km) at which point trans-Atlantic would be a good bet (Boston/London 5260 km) from which you could work up incrementally to, say, LA/Paris (9700 km). At that point you can also do LA/Tokyo (8800 km) and can work up incrementally to NY/Tokyo (10,800 km).

    *Then* it might be time for Mojave to Queensland (11,600 km), from which you can work up incrementally to Boston to Perth flights (18,700 km), which are close enough to being antipodes, and then from there to orbital in one jump.

    Well, that’s just what I come up with in 20 minutes of noodling around. There may well be more sensible ways to do it.

  • Dale Amon

    A few comments… Spaceships of this size are not a terribly great worry as ICBM’s. They are small and lightweight. The fuel is used up before they exit the atmosphere. Wing loading is very low so if someone were to hijack one in Australia and target a building in New York City, the end effect would be something on the order of flying a Cessna into a skyscraper. Hard on the Cessna and might make a mess of one office with a view, but not something to keep defense analysts up late.

    If terrorists can come up with a nasty payload, they can probably find a better delivery vehicle than a little composite airframe that will probably not even penetrate a serious structure.

    ICBM’s carry a weapon bus. A commercial space planeis pretty useless for that job. This is not to say that a purpose built space fighter might not be a very nice military asset… but it is the difference between a Cessna 172 and a P-51.

    Della: the generation under construction is suborbital. That will not necessarily be the case for, say, SpaceShipThree or Four.

    As to ITAR. Yes, ITAR can be a pain in the &^%$@#. I have friends with multiple filing cabinets full of the crap they went through to get something to Russia. But Australia is a bit different; and the fact that this is a piloted vehicle that is rather small and light by most standards will make things much easier.

    On the political front, the present US government has reasons to be well disposed towards the current Aussie government. And that is not to mention the serious insider butt kicking that we (space activists) would instigate inside the Belt. We aren’t kids anymore and we aren’t outsiders anymore. Them is Us.

    Oh, and before someone brings it up… I *do* know there were big problems from aboriginal problems and greenies about the proposed northern spaceport… but Rutan only needs an isolated
    runway, not a set of huge gantries. That is a much easier problem to solve.

    Also I really simplified some of the rocket science in the discussion as I assume most of you are not rocket scientists 😉

  • Dale Amon

    Ah, Bruce… I thought you’d appear eventualy and lobby for a Kiwi spaceport 😉

    I won’t argue that there might be a number of intermediate steps. But I do not know what precisely Branson has funded Rutan to do. They are talking about finalizing the specs some time this year, but what are the requirements they are building to? To make money and expand Branson needs to keep increasing revenue streams. I do not think a strictly up and down tourism market will do for more than a stepping stone.

    I fully understand the problems with higher re-entry heat loading, but that can be greatly ameliorated by the low ‘wing loading’ of the Rutan structures. The low mass and the relatively high surface area helps a great deal: the peak temp will be somehow proportional to Energy / Area.

  • Daveon

    Transport *sounds* convincing but I’m not convinced the economics adds up for trans pacific flights as anything other than joy rides, anymore than they ultimately did for Concorde.

    Nor am I convinced that the margins for Fed-Ex, UPS, TNT etc… are there for package delivery. I’ve discussed this with air frieght managers in 2 of those 3 and they were pretty skeptical purely based on the marginal nature of some of the existing “overnight” type operations.

    Earth orbit is “half way to anywhere”.

    *sigh* Bob Heinlein always sounds good. But the reality is this is not the case.

    There’s a bunch of tracks on this stuff, pro and con at the World Sceince Fiction Convention in Glasgow this year, you should come Dale. Aleta Jackson is going to be talking about Xcor and I’m on at least one “skeptics” panel with her.

  • Daveon

    I’m waiting with baited breath to see what Rutan is going to come up with about re-entry, either he lied to the Congressional Committee last week when he said he had no current solution, or he still hasn’t cracked that one.

    I suspect he hasn’t cracked it yet. While he plays his cards close to his chest, he does like to tease the market and potential customers. When / If he gets a solution he’ll be dropping hints. His shapes _might_ help but that’s still a hell of a lot of energy to have to dump and I’m not convinced it can be done with the current sub-orbital profiles. I fear that sub-orbital might not turn out to be on the same evolutionary track as orbital.

  • Dale Amon

    Warning: Rocket Science Ahead!

    I actually think the re-entry problem is handleable. As I noted early, you can approach the problem as a matter of Energy, Mass and Time and Temperature. The amount of energy you have to dump is proportional to the Mass of the vehicle. A lighter vehicle has less energy to start with, although of course the v^2 in the Kinetic Energy eqn dominates and there is not much you can do about that since you require a certain Potential Energy at the peak of the parabola if you are going to cover a given distance over a surface.

    The next factor is the effective surface area over which the energy is dissipated during re-entry. If the area is larger, the max temperature is lower because the Energy per unit Area is lower. But wait, there is more… this energy is not an instantaneous operation, but one which occurs over some delta T. If you change the time, you change the peak Watts/Meter^2 you have to absorb capacitively or re-radiate or otherwise dump. This is tne logic behind the idea of the Ballute, which to my knowledge has yet to be tried in practice.

    I would worry about navigation and control. if you are actually travelling somewhere, you need a fairly accurate burn timing and flight profile from ignition to the end of controllable atmospheric flight. And you will be aiming for a 45 degree angle trajectory for max distance (if it were a vaccum; since it is not, a somewhat higher angle to minimize friction losses while keeping distance as close to max as possible will be required) that if not exactly right could see you landing in China instead of Australia. Once you lose control authority, you are along for the ride until after re-entry… which had better be within glide range of your desired landing site.

    So no, I do not underestimate the difficulty. I just think we’ve got some smart, creative people on it with commercial viability in their bones and enough backing to have a good chance of solving the problems.

    I can probably come up with a dozen other difficult problems if I think about it. It is always easy to be a naysayer, but naysayers do not change the world.

  • Stehpinkeln


    The above is a URL to the ITAR faq page at the FAS site.
    Read it and you will see that I am correct. Branson has the Money to get what ever license he requires. And if he’s denied he can go to court. By the Time the court system decides on what the Definition of a Rocket is as compared to Missile (in science, one has it’s own oxygen supply, one doesn’t, which means nothing to the legal beagles) there will be colonies on Mars.
    Davon, Concord was a monatary failure because it was a socialist enterprise run by socialists. It was never intended to be a money maker, but rather a prestige project. If the SST had been designed as a commercial enterprize from the get-go. It would have focused on the trans-pacific roures, where the time saved would make the higher fares a value. The money maker was from San Fran to Tokoyo or Singapore. You don’t get much national ego-bo for France flying from The left side of America to the right side of Australia. You can make a small profit, however. Once the Scram jet becomes commercially available, there will be trans sonic flights between the west coast of the USA and the Rim nations.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Damon – I’m almost sure you could buy off the greenies and I’m *absolutely* sure the Aboriginal groups can be monetarily persuaded. They have an industry, you know. Form a protest group, see how much cash you can extract. Easy money.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Dale – Whoops, I seem to have rolled your name up into one word. Apologies. Although some might call it elegant simplicity…

  • John Rippengal

    If the ultimate aim of the Rutan/Branson deal is the rapid transport for high power business between capitals then I cannot see an Australian or any other ‘near Equator’ site has any relevance whatsoever. I mean who is going to fly from say Tokyo to a remote Australian spaceport in order to go New York. Would he land south of Mexico and then fly up. It’s a nonsense; he might just as well fly direct. Any such future sub-orbital flights will have to originate and terminate near capital cities.
    It’s a different matter if the plan is ultimately for orbital flights. In a recent interview Rutan has emphasised that the next stage is for ‘fun’ flights; you just go a hundred odd kilometres up and then down again.
    Interestingly in the same interview he relates how he is concerned to persuade the FAA to change their emphasis on the safety of people on the ground to concern for safety of those actually making sub-orbital flights. His aim is to provide a degree of safety of the early airliners which he also mentions were a very great deal less safe than current aircraft. I can’t help thinking that this pressure for a change of emphasis on safety is perhaps aimed at smoothing the way for take-off and landing at standard airports.
    The interview is at http://www.reason.com/hod/tb033105.shtml
    John Rippengal

  • Daveon

    The problem with the Cape York proposals was the local rain forest in the area – it makes a really logical place to put a space port but “buying” people off will be a serious problem due to the emotional attachment people have to that kind of geography.

  • Dale Amon

    John… perhaps you should go back and read the article again. I think you missed a lot.

    I am virtually certain Rutan will go for the America Space Prize. Just do not expect to hear a word about it until secrecy becomes impossible. I was expecting something like SpaceShipOne from the time I visited their hanger in 1999, I remember telling Rand (who was working for Rotary at the time) on the way back from Mojave that Rutan was going to go for it. I was right… but it was after at least three years of dead silence.

    If I were to bet on a time table, I’d place the first orbital flight around 2010-2015. My gut feel is for the nearer end.

  • Daveon

    If anybody can win the America’s prize it’s Rutan – I suspected the same with the X-Prize.

    I’m still not convinced that he will win it though.

    As I said, I don’t think it is actually easy to be a nay sayer.

  • John Rippengal

    I think I have taken in pretty much all of the article but it seems to me that there are three likely threads to Rutan’s activities:

    Fun rides to edge of space
    Long distance fast travel
    Full orbital flights

    Only the last one needs near equatorial launch sites.
    For the others it would be a great disadvantage.
    The three threads, in the order given, seem to be on the likely development path.


  • Dale Amon

    Exactly. And Rutan is already looking at an Australian possibility. I believe he is thinking several moves ahead. That is my point. Or one of them 🙂

  • What you don’t take into account is other franchises besides Virgin. At the Congressions hearings on Commericial space last week, Burt said he was going to frachise

    “Rutan said he has received interest in the vehicle from a group in Dubai, among other places.” – The SpaceReview.

    So he is likely going to have different launch customers requesting different development paths. Knowing Burt, he will do whatever he wants, so I don’t think Virgin has as much influence as you might think.

  • Michael

    I think the physics of re-entry militates against using anything like SpaceShipOne for long distance travel but that is a next logical step. I have, for years, dreamed of the FedEx advertising campaign in Japan concerning suborbital delivery to America, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there yesterday!” 😉