Virgin Galactic and the start of the Commercial Space Race
By Loz Blain
July 6, 2009
Space - it's the final frontier of human exploration, a mysterious eternity of distance, all around us and yet so tantalizingly out of reach. In its dark recesses hide the secrets of extraterrestrial life, planets yet to be explored, and it's reasonable to assume, some sort of future home for the human race once we're finished stuffing this planet up.
Although mankind has been fascinated with space since we first saw the twinkling of night-time stars, it took us tens of thousands of years of technological progress to develop the tools to interact with it in a meaningful way. Firstly with telescopes that allowed us to make visual sense of faraway stars, then with scientific theories to explain the movements and relationships between massive celestial objects, and finally, in just the last half century, with spaceships that allowed us to take both ourselves and our equipment and technology outside the Earth's atmosphere.
In the late 1950s, at the height of the cold war between the United States and USSR, the intense competition between these two countries resulted in a golden age of space development. The Soviets were a step ahead of the Americans to start with, putting the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957 - Sputnik 2 - and getting the first human into orbit - Yuri Gagarin - by 1961.
Of course, the USA famously retaliated by putting the first man on the moon in 1969 - but the late 50s to the early 70s was a period of intense and exciting one-upmanship that left many Earthbound observers thinking anything was possible.
And here's where we meet a fellow called Elbert "Burt" Rutan. Born in 1943 in Oregon, USA, Rutan was in his late teens and early 20s at the height of the space race, working for the US Air Force as a flight test project engineer. Remember, this is only 15-20 years after the first rockets and jet aircraft had come onto the scene. And now, all of a sudden, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are sending back videotapes from the moon, bouncing around and planting American flags. Rutan's imagination was going crazy - as a lot of people's were - just imagine what we'd be doing by the year 2000.
Well, now we know. Not much at all. In the 40 years since Armstrong and Aldrin first walked on the moon, a total of only 10 men have ever followed. As Rutan puts it, the young people of today have nothing more exciting to look forward to than a cellphone with a better camera, or another sequel to their favorite movie or video game.
It's not just spaceflight, Rutan is disgusted by the apparent stagnation of development across the entire aerospace world. The supersonic Concorde survived its entire life cycle without competition and went out of service, leaving us flying around the world in commercial airliners that are no faster than they were in the 1950s.
Luckily enough, Rutan is in a position to do something about it. Over the last 35 years, he's designed dozens of aircraft, from ultralights to race planes to the Voyager endurance plane that made the first ever round the world trip on one tank of fuel. But he really shot to international fame when he convinced Microsoft's Paul Allen to stump up $25 million and finance the world's first privately operated, manned spaceflight in 2004.
Now let's have a look at what that means. The space shuttle Endeavour, built by NASA, cost approximately $1.7 billion. Every time it's launched, it costs another $450 million. Rutan thinks these costings are ridiculous in this day and age.
With just a tiny fraction of that money, he was able to develop and build his spaceship one, and fly two suborbital space missions within two weeks. In doing so, he won the $10 million Ansari X prize.
But just how far from the Earth does space begin? Well, jumbo jets tend to fly around 10 km off the ground, that's about 33,000 feet, and the first layer of the Earth's atmosphere, the troposphere, reaches up to about 20 km. The next layer, the stratosphere, reaches up to about 51 km above sea level. This is where you find the ozone layer.
Between 50 and 85 km, you find the mesosphere, that's where you see meteors burning up as they enter the atmosphere. At 100 km (62 miles) you hit the Karman line, which is kind of an arbitrary point at which you can be fairly certain you are in space. In truth, the atmosphere continues to spread out a lot further than that, and the effects of Earth's gravity are still significant for a long way further still. But 100 km above sea level is about the point where the atmosphere becomes too thin to support a winged aircraft.
This area is called the Thermosphere, and it extends all the way to roughly 700 km (435 miles) from the Earth. If you want to put a spacecraft into orbit, this is the range you're dealing with. Satellites can orbit as low as 160 km from the Earth, and the International space Station orbits between 320 and 380 km above the Earth. That's a tiny distance if you think about it, you drive further for a camping trip.
But you're not driving straight up. Escaping the grasp of gravity and flying to these heights is no trivial matter. If you want to get out of orbit, you need to hit the boundary of space at an escape velocity of around 25,000 miles an hour. Just to get into orbit, you need to be able to do about 17,800 miles an hour.
But to get to that Karman line, 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, you can do that with a speed of just 2200 miles an hour - and that's what Rutan did with the spaceship one.
And now that Rutan had shown everybody that it could be done, it was time to start capitalizing on the idea. All Rutan needed was an immensely wealthy partner, with an adventurous spirit and a taste for risky business. One of this new breed of 'Thrillionaires.' Enter Richard Branson, the perfect fit.
Branson started his entrepreneurial career with a few high-risk high reward ventures in the music business. Nowadays, the virgin empire extends across finance, telecommunications, hotels, medicine, media and International air transport. Branson, a billionaire business tycoon and famous adrenaline junkie, has a great nose for a new investment and jumped on board with Rutan in 2008 to form Virgin Galactic.
Here's a few lines from Richard Branson's speech at the unveiling of Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two in 2008, describing why the industry of space travel interested him:
"It was Stephen Hawking who first got me thinking about this issue, when he explained clearly and concisely to the BBC that mankind had no option but to get to space as quickly as possible and start doing things up there that we have been doing on planet Earth, but in a much more efficient manner.
Our population is now heading to 9 billion people by the middle of this century - that’s three times more than when I was born. With the end of the oil era approaching, and climate change progressing faster than most models have been predicting, the utilisation of space is essential not only for communications but also for the logistics of survival through things such as weather satellites, agricultural monitoring, GPS and climate science.
I also believe that someday we will be able to use space as a source of energy for the planet, through solar power satellites, using the most sustainable source available – our Sun."
Minutes later, Branson and Rutan pulled the covers off Spaceship Two and its mother ship White Knight Two, the two-piece team that's going to be taking space tourists up to the edges of space, with tickets going on sale within the next couple of years.
So here's an idea of what the experience might be like: for starters, there's three days of pre-flight training, on the ground at either Rutan's Mojave desert spaceport, or the USD$200 million dollar Spaceport America that Virgin Galactic is building in New Mexico.
On the day of the flight, you and five other passengers will get into the spacecraft, which is piggybacked on top of the mothership, and take off like you would in a normal jet airliner. This is a lot safer than a ground-based rocket launch, and it's just one of many brilliant ideas that Rutan pioneered with the spaceship one.
The mothership will climb to 50,000 feet - or around 15 kilometers, and then there will be a countdown to release before all hell breaks loose and SpaceShipOne's rockets slam you back into your seat with around 3 to 4G of acceleration. In a matter of about 30 seconds, you'll be watching your personal read-out show a velocity more than three times the speed of sound, at just under 2500mph.
Here's a taste of the beautifully written Virgin Galactic website:
"As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, the large windows show the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. You're on a high, this is really happening, you're loving it and coping well. You start to relax; but in an instant your senses are back on full alert, the world contained in your spaceship has completely transformed.
The rocket motor has been switched off and it is quiet. But it's not just quiet, it's QUIET. The silence of space is as awe inspiring as was the noise of the rocket just moments earlier. What's really getting your senses screaming now though, is that the gravity which has dominated every movement you've made since the day you were born is not there any more. There is no up and no down and you're out of your seat experiencing the freedom that even your dreams underestimated. After a graceful mid-space sommersault you find yourself at a large window and what you see would make your hair stand on end if the zero gravity hadn't already achieved that effect.
Below you (or is it above you?) is a view that you've seen in countless images but the reality is so much more beautiful, so much more vivid and produces emotions that are strong but hard to define. The blue map, curving into the black distance is familiar but has none of the usual marked boundaries. The incredibly narrow ribbon of atmosphere looks worryingly fragile. What you are looking at is the source of everything it means to be human, and it is home. You see that your fellow astronauts are equally spellbound, all lost in their own thoughts and storing away the memories."
We should interrupt here to point out that the four or five minutes you spend floating around the cabin of spaceship one isn't really zero gravity. In fact, even if you're in orbit on the International Space Station 200 km higher up, you're still technically just in a state of freefall, with gravity pulling you towards the earth with just enough force to keep you circulating.
Passengers on Spaceship Two will experience a sort of virtual weightlessness as the engines shut off, and gravity starts pulling the craft back to earth. This is where one of Rutan's greatest technical advances will come into play.
Generally, the heat generated upon re-entry is one of the biggest technical challenges and safety issues that have made spaceflight difficult. The thermal protection systems used on the space shuttle have proven very expensive and not all that reliable. Rutan's genius innovation has been to fold up the wings of Spaceship Two to create a high drag effect a bit like what happens with a shuttlecock. So the bulk of the spaceship's deceleration happens at a much higher altitude - the forces and heat of re-entry are greatly reduced.
What's more, this "feathering" process allows Spaceship Two to enter the atmosphere at any angle or orientation and it will self correct just like a shuttlecock does.
If all goes according to plan, the return to Earth will take around 30 minutes and the spaceship two will touch down around two and a half hours after takeoff.
The price of this amazing experience? Initially, around USD$200,000. And how safe is it? We'll let Rutan answer: "This is designed to be at least as safe as the early airliners in the 1920s... Don't believe anyone that tells you that the safety will be the same as a modern airliner, which has been around for 70 years."
There's been no announcement yet on when Virgin Galactic will start operating commercial flights, but in Rutan's TED presentation from 2006, he flagged that he expects as many as 100,000 people to enjoy suborbital spaceflight before 2020.
And of course, once these customers flying and money flowing in, the pace of spaceflight development can finally start again. Rutan reckons that it won't be long before the Virgin Galactic team work out how to get past the safety issues that have stopped him from putting his aircraft in orbit. And once you can get beyond orbit, the possibilities of space tourism get a whole lot more exciting. How does a swing around the dark side of the moon and back sound? According to Rutan, that's an easy one.
"That'll be really cool because the moon doesn't have an atmosphere. You can do an elliptical orbit and miss it by 10 feet if you want. Oh that's gonna be so much fun."
And of course, once there is somebody making money out of it, commercial competition will kick in and we'll start to see what Rutan predicts will be a second, capitalist space race.
If it is another space race, then the Russians have again got a head start on the USA - two fare paying customers have already stumped up about USD$20 million each to take a joyride on a Soyuz rocket and spend a week in orbit on the International Space Station. What's more, they're already offering the chance to fly around the back of moon for any customer with $100 million to spend. So in that sense, Virgin Galactic has some catching up to do.
With regular, profitable space flights running daily up close to orbital altitudes, Virgin will be able to offer a super-affordable service to take satellites and instruments up into the thermosphere, and as development picks up pace like it always has in competitive commercial environments, the research and other commercial opportunities could grow well beyond the scope of what we can now envisage.
And Branson's goal of harvesting unfiltered solar energy might start looking a lot closer to being within reach - who knows, maybe some day round-the-moon joyflights could end up being hugely subsidized by the massive amounts of clean energy each flight could bring back down with it.
There is no way to tell where this might go, but perhaps the most important thing is that it's going again. After 40 years of stagnation with space programs in the hands of national governments, the dynamism of private industry and the passionate genius of men like Burt Rutan looks set to breathe new life into the dream of space travel.
And of course, if Virgin Galactic need the help of pioneering journalists to spread the word about their space flight program, I'm happy to get measured up for a space suit any day of the week. I'll even grow a pair of whopping big galactic sideburns like Burt's, if that'll help my application. Whaddya reckon guys?