From Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, a space programme is the must-have accessory for any self-respecting playboy entrepreneur these days. But Virgin Galactic, the focus of Sir Richard Branson’s cosmic ambitions, has been pretty much dormant since the shock crash that killed a test pilot in 2014.
This afternoon it will attempt to bounce back with unveiling of the latest version of SpaceShipTwo, the space plane that Branson hopes will soon be capable of taking six passengers above the atmosphere, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth. Tourist tickets are initially expected to cost around $250,000 (£175,000) but could come down in the future (perhaps one day Stelios will get in on the action with easyRocket?).
Renowned showman Branson will no doubt make big hoo-ha about the unveiling but (even assuming everything goes to plan) it will be some time before Virgin Galactic’s first wealthy space traveller feels the thrill of zero gravity. The ship’s components will be tested on the ground, then while attached to its mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo and then again on several gliding runs where its rocket engines will remain safely switched off. Finally, it will be tested at pull fower, eventually aiming to smash the 62 mile-high ceiling that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale deems to be the edge of space.
Given the tragedy that befell the last SpaceShipTwo, safety is likely to be at the top of everyone’s minds – so it’s no surprise to see Virgin talking up the thoroughness of its procedures. ‘We’ve run a spaceship cabin through thousands of pressure cycles simulating the flight from ground level to space and back,’ it said in a statement yesterday. ‘We’ve conducted nearly one hundred full-scale tests of our rocket motor system; we’ve bent and torqued our megastructures in ways significantly exceeding what they’d see in flight.’
This will all take some time, but as the company quite reasonably insists ‘this isn’t a race.’ As well as Musk and Bezos, Branson faces competition from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose Stratolaunch systems is working on a similar programme to Virgin Galactic’s.
Old Beardy is playing it cool though. ‘To have three or four people who are fairly entrepreneurial competing with each other means we’ll be able to open up space at a fraction of the price that governments have been able to do so in the past,’ he told Reuters.
With so much cash pouring into commercial spaceflight it seems likely that cosmo-tourism will be a reality in the not-too-distant future. Whether it will make for profitable enterprise or exist just as a status symbol for incessantly ambitious tycoons remains to be seen.