Space is a wonder that millions of people all over the world fancy to explore, or connect with through our personalized star maps. But to date, only a few people, a maximum of 600, have managed to experience space.
Richard Branson’s desire to open space to the ordinary people drove him to launch Virgin Galactic 20 years ago. The company intends to provide commercial suborbital flights to space.
Since launching the company, it has been a roller-coaster for Richard Branson and co. with many missed deadlines, fatal accidents and some accomplishments.
The Birth of Virgin Galactic
Efforts to conquer space heightened in 1996 when X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million award to any first privately owned spacecraft to fly at least 3 people into space twice within two weeks. According to their definition, space was any distance above 100km. The X prize would later be renamed the Ansari X Prize, thanks to the backing it received from the family.
In 1999, three years after the X Prize was announced, Branson registered the Virgin Galactic Company. His company would later sponsor Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne to space in September and October 2004 to secure the Ansari X prize. After it successfully flew to space in 2004, SpaceShipOne made 17 more flights before it was phased out.
Having secured their first success, Virgin Galactic vowed to open the space to commercial tourists interested in exploring space. The company invested in creating SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles with a capacity of six passengers as a replacement for SpaceShipOne. At the time, the price for each seat was set at $200,000.
The SpaceShipTwo was a new generation spaceflight based on SpaceShipOne’s technology. Alongside this invention was the WhiteKnightTwo which was a replacement launch craft to the initial White Knight.
These two vehicles were created in July 2005 when Rutan and Branson formed a company under the ownership of Scaled Composites and Virgin Group. The Virgin Group would later take full ownership of this new company.
Later in the year, December 2005, New Mexico offered the company a facility called Spaceport America worth $225 million funded by taxpayers. This became the company’s headquarters from where test flights and spaceflights were conducted.
Over time, Virgin Atlantic went ahead with development work only to receive a setback which involved a ground-based test failure that killed numerous Scaled Composites employees in 2007. The crash led to a delay in developing the rocket engine which was the main focus at the time.
After the crush, no many developments were forthcoming, until July 2008 when Virgin Galactic revealed the WhiteKnightTwo to the public. This air launch vehicle was named ‘Eve’ after Branson’s mother. The launch vehicle would later start test flights in December of the same year.
The SpaceShipTwo did not come immediately after. It took longer than anticipated and it was revealed in December 2009, more than a year after the launch vehicle came out. "I want to say that this program has been, at this point, harder than we thought it would be. It's taken longer and is more difficult," Rutan said at the launch event in New Mexico. "This is an enormous milestone today in unveiling the first commercial manned spacecraft. I look forward to moving into the test program."
The first test flight for the crew flight took place in July 2010. During this period, the company was also intensifying efforts to find customers willing to pay for the spaceflights.
Despite the setback in 2007, Virgin Galactic has still managed to attract customers even before sales resume. It is believed that about 30,000 people signed up to reserve a ticket once the company resumes sales.
As a short term goal, the company is focusing on finding 100 customers who are willing to be the first to explore space on SpaceShipTwo. A group that has been dubbed the “Virgin Galactic Founders”. According to Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s vice president for astronaut relations, the company is close to achieving this number. He says, “We’re just preparing to take deposits from those people, and most of them have signed contracts.”
The 30,000 customers who signed on the company are majorly men from over 120 countries. Among the names on the list include Adrian Reynard, a British race car designer, and Victoria Principal, an actress-turned-entrepreneur, popularly known for her role in ‘Dallas’, a 1980s TV drama.
With the high number of customers interested in signing, Virgin estimates that it will fly 450 people to explore space during the first year and double the number in the subsequent year.
Concerns and Assurances about Safety
There have been concerns on the safety of suborbital vehicles which has made some customers withdraw their names from the list of passengers. As a result, the company has been educating the public on the risks of spaceflight, while at the same discussing the safety of the SpaceShipTwo and finding the customers who are willing to take the risks.
In a bid to emphasize safety, Virgin Galactic has been vocal about its recent safety record where none of its three airlines has been involved in a disastrous accident. The company has even gone ahead to emulate Qantas, an Australian airline popular for its exceptional safety record.
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, assures customers that safety is of utmost importance to the company. “We now have the best safety record of any airline in the world,” he said.
Long Wait for the Suborbit
Besides the safety concerns, some customers withdrew their names from the passenger list due to the lengthy wait on the launch of the first Virgin Galactic spaceflight. The long wait has been attributed to the many tests being carried on the SpaceShipTwo to ensure improved safety for the passengers.
While carrying out these tests, the company has been engaging in other deals to diversify the Virgin brand. In 2011, for instance, Virgin Galactic collaborated with NASA to work on research flights. Virgin Galactic also agreed on a deal to fly Southwest Research Institute scientists into space. During that time, they also developed the LauncherOne liquid-fueled rocket.
In April 2013, Virgin successfully launched their first test flight of SpaceShipTwo and followed it up with another one in September of the same year and a third in January 2014. All three test flights were conducted successfully with no glitch.
The fourth rocket-powered flight that followed in October 2014, did not go to plan. A tragedy struck that claimed the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and left the pilot Peter Siebold injured.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the accident had resulted from Alsbury’s error. This led to the development of an improved version of SpaceShipTwo, referred to as VSS Unity that would prevent errors that occurred in the previous versions.
Further Flight Tests on VSS Unity
After the crush in 2014, it took Virgin 2 years before they could conduct another test fight. In September 2016 the improved VSS Unity took to the air for the first time. The VSS Unity covered an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet lasting for about 3 hours and 43 minutes.
More test flights followed through 2017 which were mainly unpowered glide tests that involved releasing the carrier ship and letting glide. Despite the few test flights, 2017 remained a busy and productive year for Virgin as they brokered several deals including the one with Italian Space Agency where in which they promised to offer the agency a SpaceShipTwo research flight. They also struck a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund for space activities. The highlight of that year was when the LauncherOne program decided to spin off into an independent company called Virgin Orbit.
In 2018, the company reverted to powered flight where the VSS Unity was allowed to fly for the first time since 2014. The vehicle flew to about 84,271 feet and touched down safely.
The first test took place in May 2018 followed closely by another one in July 2018. It is during the second test where the VSS Unity registered the highest altitude travelled of about 170,800 feet. A new record of 51.4 miles was, however, set on Dec 2018. This was the highest height ever flown by the VSS Unity.
The Future of Suborbital
The VSS Unity developments so far provide optimism for a successful future for the Virgin Galactic in terms of safety. There is expected to be more trials this year followed by a flight with Branson onboard in 2021 before finally giving way to commercial flights carrying passengers. The rate of operations for the passenger flights is expected to be around six passengers in each flight.
Both Whitehorn and Attenborough are confident of success in other fronts besides safety. One of the major areas being pricing. The two predict that the expected starting price of $200,000 will drop to about $50,000 by the fifth year and to a further $25,000 by the ninth year as the number of trips to space increase as well as due to economies of scale.
The reduction in price is also attributed to the initial investment made by the Virgin Galactic Founders for the initial ticket prices. “This is not equated to driving a new Ferrari down Rodeo Drive. They recognize that what they’re doing is not only great, but it is important, it is significant. They are proud to pave the way to make it possible for others to do this in the years to come” explains Attenborough.
It doesn’t end there. The future is bright even for those who cannot afford the $25,000 price. According to Whitehorn, Virgin is planning to offer other financing options once the ticket prices drop to the $25,000 levels. The financing will be similar to how people acquire financing from automakers to buy new cars. Other options include participating in game shows for a chance to win a ticket, as well as a chance for frequent customers to redeem their flyer miles for tickets.
Virgin Galactic also intends to expand its operation base beyond Mojave. The company looks to grow its activities into the future and they view their current location, as just a temporary operating ground. With the crowding of the airspace and California fast encroaching on Mojave, the company has resorted to seeking spaceports in New Mexico and Florida. In addition to these states, the company targets to secure spaceports in other countries like Australia. Other ideal places include Europe, though the weather remains a challenge, and Morocco whose main impediment being the technology transfer problems.
Virgin Galactic Experience for Customers
Virgin Galactic has again pushed the first SpaceShipTwo commercial flights to 2021. While the date is still some few months away, it is safe to say the company has placed customer experience top of their priority list. According to Whitehorn, the trip will last two hours and passengers will have to be trained for a few days before they embark on their tour to space.
When tourists arrive at the Virgin’s training facility which is currently in Mojave, California, they will have an opportunity to watch as the spaceship that goes before them is launched. They will also be allowed to fly on the launch aircraft of the previous group.
As part of the training, tourists will spend some time in simulators to familiarize with the flying experience before the actual flight. They will also fly in light aircraft to acclimatize with the gravitational force that they will experience during the actual flight. To enhance proper communication, the tourists will also undergo training on operating the “personal communications console” to be used in recording their experience while on the flight.
The SpaceShipTwo has similar basic features to its predecessor SpaceShipOne. The difference, however, is that SpaceShipTwo will fly higher at an altitude of between 360,000 and 400,000 feet. With this height, customers will experience weightlessness for up to six minutes. At that point, they will be free to float but will be tethered to their seats to allow them to get back into their seats once the g-forces come into play. While still floating, passengers will have a chance to view the earth and space from a window set aside for each passenger. This promises to be an exciting experience for customers that they will remember for years to come.
If you have one of our star maps hanging on one of your walls at home, it's looking more and more likely that, one day in the not too distant future, you may be able to actually be in and not just see space. Okay, you may not be able to visit all the stars on your map or in your zodiac (we're not quite at Star Trek levels of technology), but think how far we have come. It's not that long ago that travelling from one country to another was either impossible or very dangerous. If you could travel to one place in the universe, where would you go?