Tuesday, 28 September 2004

Virgin Galactic

The name is nothing if not ambitious.

From Agence France Presse (AFP), via the ABC :
British airline magnate Richard Branson has announced a hugely ambitious plan for the world's first commercial space flights, saying he would send "thousands" of fee-paying astronauts into orbit in the next five years.

Branson, a flamboyant communicator and high-profile tycoon, said his Virgin Atlantic airline had signed a technology licensing deal with the US company behind SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first private manned craft to travel to space.

Virgin GalacticAddressing reporters in central London, Mr Branson said that the new firm - Virgin Galactic - would launch its maiden flight in only three years, and that he would join the very first trip into space.

"Within five years, Virgin Galactic will have created over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries," Mr Branson said, speaking alongside US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed and built SpaceShipOne.

"Many of these countries will have not had the funds to date to compete with the government-funded space programs of the superpowers," he said.

"We plan to construct launch pads for commercial space travel in a number of countries over the next few years."

Such a vastly ambitious plan is typical of the 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, who first made a fortune with the Virgin pop record label before branching out into air travel, railways and a string of other ventures.

Virgin has signed an agreement worth 14 million pounds ($AU35 million) with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which owns the technology behind SpaceShipOne, it announced.

Would-be space tourists will pay fees starting at 115,000 pounds ($AU291,000) and receive three days of flight training before embarking on the real trip.

In a near-messianic speech, Mr Branson pledged that his principal aim was to make space travel possible for ordinary people.

"Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but as a business with a sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable to people throughout the world," he said.

"We will re-invest the funds raised over the first few years of flight back into the business, striving constantly to lower prices."

For years, Mr Branson said, he had "dreamt of seeing the beauty of our planet from space".

He added: "Burt and I will be fortunate enough to have fulfilled our own personal dreams and to experience all of this on the inaugural flight over Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise in three years' time."
Catchy name that. "VSS Enterprise".
But of course, there's always one to nay-say:
However a space expert warned that Mr Branson's plan, while technically feasible, was riddled with potential difficulties and unlikely to usher in an immediate era of mass space travel.

"It is something that is technically possible, but space is a very expensive business, and space tourism is likely to remain an expensive business for a very long time," said Andre Balogh, professor of space physics at London University's Imperial College.

Monday's announcement was best viewed as a "statement of intent", Professor Balogh said.

"Eventually it will come. Whether it will come in Richard Branson's time, and in his way, remains to be seen," he told AFP.
He's right - but maybe he should read about the technology before he expresses doubt in such strong terms. "Five Years" is not exactly immediate, and over a quarter of a million Aussie Dollars a ticket is not exactly cheap. Just 100 times less than some people have paid. 3000 passengers is pretty conservative.

I exepect that the first commercial development will be regular sub-orbital flights for what used to be called "the jet set", trans-atlantic, trans-pacific etc. New York to Tokyo in 2 hours, most of which is going through security. Not within 5 years, but maybe 10. And with prices not a lot dearer than flying on Concorde used to be.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled to fly again this Wednesday, and then once more on October 4.

Of course in Australia we knew about Branson's plans back in March 2000...
In fact, within eight years, Branson vows, Virgin Galactic Airways will be offering short tourist flights into space.
So he's just about on track. In fact, Branson first laid out his plans in a May 1999 Webcast.
Speaking last night in a Webcast watched by hundreds of Net users, Branson told how his trendy company, Virgin, will be the first to open a hotel in space. He has already registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways and is examining ways to transport 10 people using a reusable rocket for a two-week holiday in a Virgin space hotel.
The best site for lots of details on this story is over at Hobbyspace.

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