Virgin Galactic’s Boss Says Space Travel Will Never Be Cheap

Virgin Galactic’s Boss Says Space Travel Will Never Be Cheap

Warning, middle-class Earthmen. By the end of this post, your dreams of low-cost space travel will be delayed. Above: WhiteKnightTwo Eve’s Maiden Flight. Photo Credit Schereer Scherer.

Will Whitehorn has worked at Virgin for 22 years. Before he ran Galactic, which he named, he did search and rescue for Sir Richard Branson‘s world-record-attempt balloon flights, and flew helis for British Airways. I got him on the phone for a few minutes to talk about space travel.

How’d Virgin get into the business of civilian space flight?
Sir Richard has always been into space. In the ’80s, he was in touch with Gorbechev about getting into the Soyuz. And his first movie produced was The Space Movie [commissioned by NASA to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Apollo mission] .

But Virgin Galactic’s origins began with a conversation between me, Buzz Aldrin and Sir Richard Branson in the winter of 1996. We asked him why the American space program never launched crafts from air. Buzz explained that the US had the X-15 project in the ’60s and they did test launches from a balloon before, and that the US did these experiments when Buzz was a pilot for the Navy in the ’50s.

In 1999 we decided to register the name Virgin Galactic, not knowing where we’d find a spacecraft.

In 2003, Steve Fossett and Virgin cofunded the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, a plane Fossett would [use to]circumnavigate [the earth]on a single tank of fuel, setting a record. I was watching Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites build the flyer, and noticed he had a small spacecraft in the corner of his factory—it being the ship [SpaceShipOne]that Paul Allen was funding for the [Ansari]X Prize.

That’s how we found our ship builder.

How are your customers going to be prepped for space?
There’s a three-day training program in our New Mexico facility where, among other things, they’ll get G-force training. We’ve tested 100 of them already using a centrifuge, so they’ll understand the forces. If you look at the WhiteKnightTwo [launch vehicle] , the starboard hull has an identical cabin to the space ship [see below] , and the WhiteKnight has the unique ability to be an astronaut training vehicle, creating forces up to 7Gs. And it can be used as a zero-G flying plane, so passengers can experience G forces and zero G. When White Knight is bringing SpaceShipTwo and its load of passengers into orbit, it is also training the next day’s travellers in its hull.

What’s the in-flight entertainment going to be like?
The in flight entertainment system won’t be like a normal entertainment system. Every customer will have a record of their flight. And lots of data: They’ll see how many G’s they sustained on the way up, they’ll see what time they’ve arrived, etc. Of course, the best in flight entertainment of all will be the view of the Planet Earth; you’ll be able to see the blue planet and the blackness of space while you’re weightless.

When’s the price coming down to $US10,000?
Once the program gets regularised, and we get enough volume, we will be able to reduce the costs. But we believe after 3 to 5 years, we can get it down to $US100,000 from $US200,000. We can get it down to $US100,000 but don’t think we’ll get it down to $10,000.

Gravity doesn’t go on sale.
Gravity doesn’t give you a discount.

Have you already started engineering the zero-g airsickness bags?
NASA already makes one. They’re easy to get. But of our 100 customers that we put through the centrifuge, none felt ill from the test.

What other plans do you have for Virgin Galactic?
It’s also an industrial and scientific system. We’ll bring scientists into space to do microgravity experiments. And we can launch small unmanned rockets or satellites into space, up to 200 kilos, much more cheaply and safely than ever before.

Why should we send people into space?
Stephen Hawking believes that too many scientists in the ’80s and ’90s got into the mindset that we could just send robots into space. But he said it’s wrong to think that way, because humans need to explore. And we now know enough about our planet that we know that a catastrophic event will happen in the next few thousand years—volcanic or otherwise—which would have the propensity to wipe us out. We have to have the ability to leave the planet, and we’re only going to be able to do this if we develop manned space flight.

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