Richard Branson’s quest: to boldly go where no billionaire has gone before

Successful flight on Virgin Galactic craft would mark the next phase of space tourism race with Jeff Bezos

It does not often rain in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Nevertheless, Sir Richard Branson is likely to feel nervous as he checks the weather forecast on Sunday morning: if there are blue skies ahead then the British entrepreneur is likely to become the richest person ever to venture into space.

Branson and his team – two pilots and three other “mission specialists” – will strap into the spacecraft, the VSS Unity. If all goes well Branson and co will be propelled 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, the point considered by Nasa, the US space agency, to mark the end of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The “mission” set for the 70-year-old Branson, whose expertise is in starting new companies rather than the technicalities of spaceflight, will be to “evaluate the private astronaut experience”, such as seat comfort and views of Earth. It will also be to deliver a marketing coup for his company, Virgin Galactic, and a bloody nose to his billionaire rivals.

Sunday’s launch programme will begin at 7am in New Mexico – which is 9am on the US east coast and 2pm in the UK.

A successful launch would mark the next phase in a private-sector space race between Branson, the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and the Tesla chief executive, Elon Musk, as they try to open up the final frontier to the paying public, or at least those with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare.

Virgin Galactic only announced the Saturday flight date on 2 July. It would mean that Branson, whose personal fortune is worth £3.8bn according to the Sunday Times, would beat Bezos, the world’s richest man, into space by nine days.

The cabin of VSS Unity
The cabin of VSS Unity, the Virgin Galactic spaceship that will carry Richard Branson and five others 50 miles above Earth if all goes to plan. Photograph: Virgin Galactic/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

“If that’s Richard’s motivation, good luck to him,” says Will Whitehorn, a former president of Virgin Galactic and now president of the trade body UKspace. “It’ll be essentially a British victory. If there’s a bit of rivalry to take us to the next industrial phase in human history, I’m all in favour.”

Branson’s carbon composite VSS Unity (also known as SpaceShipTwo) will itself be suspended from a “mothership” jet aircraft, VMS Eve (also known as WhiteKnightTwo). VMS Eve has a twin fuselage design with four jet engines under 140ft wings so that it can carry the smaller craft underneath for about an hour. Once it has reached the correct altitude, VSS Unity will peel away, powering its way vertically to space.

graphic

Branson and the other passengers – an engineer, an astronaut instructor and a rather more unlikely government affairs official for Virgin Galactic – will experience micro-gravity and will be able to see theEarth below them through portholes. The plan is for the craft to then re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and – hopefully – perform a smooth corkscrew glide back down to New Mexico. The whole journey is planned to take less than two hours.

Two additional test flights are planned before Virgin Galactic starts commercial services in 2022. By 2023, the company could be running 100 flights a year.

Branson’s venture has had many false starts. In 2004, he said that paying passengers could be flown into space by 2007-08. That schedule has been pushed back repeatedly, in part because of two deadly disasters. In 2007, three workers died in an explosion during a test of a rocket propulsion system. Seven years later an explosion during a test flight over the Mojave desert killed the craft’s pilot.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, during a test flight in May
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, during a test flight in May. Photograph: Reuters

However, this time Virgin Galactic’s engineers appear to have ironed out the technical problems, and Branson has got other wealthy backers onside (Whitehorn told the Guardian the safety level was now “equivalent to helicopters”). Branson floated shares in Virgin Galactic on New York’s Nasdaq stock exchange in September (ticker: SPCE) via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (known, in a pleasing coincidence, by their acronym Spac).

Myles Walton, an analyst at the investment bank UBS, said Virgin Galactic has a future as the super-rich chase one of the most exclusive experiences going. His modelling of the financing – barring any major problems – shows the company could be profitable as early as 2023.

Ticket prices are likely to be between $300,00 (£217,000) and $400,000 initially, Walton wrote in a research note in May, putting them well beyond most people. However, rapid growth in the number of super-rich people around the world means “we see no shortage in the pipeline of potential customers”, he wrote.

As of 31 March the company had received about 600 reservations for spaceflight tickets, securing valuable deposits worth $80m. Increased ticket sales could eventually help prices to come down.

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Multiple spaceflights, however, will carry a carbon cost. Virgin Galactic says it wants to launch a “new age of clean and sustainable access to space” and that the carbon footprint per passenger will be comparable with a transatlantic business class seat. Whitehorn says there could ultimately be an environmental benefit to the space billionaires’ ambitions – even if the aim seems to belong in the realms of science fiction for now.

“If you look at Bezos, Musk and Branson the vision is that there’s going to be an Industrial Revolution in space. We have to put our industry that is heating up the planet outside the atmosphere.”

But Branson will have to prove that his venture works first. Whitehorn adds that the 90-minute flight time would being another benefit for the businessman: watching England v Italy. “He will want to be back down for the final.”

Contributors

Jasper Jolly and Gwyn Topham

The GuardianTramp

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