Virgin Galactic: Not So Out of This World
Space, the Final Frontier
With the Trump administration directing NASA to focus efforts on putting man on the moon again, much of the media interest in the space race has shifted to the increasingly crowded and competitive private sector. The private sector’s involvement covers most areas of space travel; from planed tourist trips into space and carrying crew to the ISS to satellite deployment and planned exploration further afield.
The Main Players
While there are several companies that the general public will not know and whose plans are either at development or testing stage, some of the main players will be well known thanks to extensive media coverage. Some of the big companies involved include Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Boeing, but perhaps the two names most well-known by people are Space X (the company founded by Elon Musk) and Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
Leading the Way
It’s fair to say that SpaceX is leading the competition, and by a good distance too. Their achievements to date include:
- First privately developed and funded rocket to go into orbit (The Falcon 1 in 2008).
- First private sector company to have a rocket recovered after launch and orbit (Dragon in 2010).
- First private company to send a craft to the International Space Station (Dragon in 2012).
- First propulsive landing (Falcon 9 in 2015).
- First private sector company to put an object into orbit around the sun (2018).
- Partnership with NASA that has seen them be the first private company to send astronauts to the ISS and also fly 20 cargo resupply missions.
Like a Virgin
While SpaceX has focused mainly on becoming an integral part of NASA’s missions as well as their own independent space exploration, Virgin Galactic’s focus has been a little closer to home. A large part of their intended aim is on providing sub-orbital flights for tourists and also for point to point sub-orbital journeys as a faster – and far more expensive – option to plane travel. Virgin Galactic sees space tourism as a sector with huge potential growth in the future, though outside of ‘pleasure’ flights, their vision would require the major jump forward of ‘space hotels’ being developed at some point. The only real competition Virgin has in terms of space tourism is Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. They are pursuing a slightly different direction to Virgin, however.
Things have never gone that smoothly for Virgin Galactic. Schedules have often been delayed or postponed for a variety of reasons including incidents where a pilot died when SpaceShipTwo broke up and when three employees of partner company, Scaled Composites, were killed by debris from the detonation of a tank of nitrous oxide.
In the latest setback, the planned demonstration of a new rocket system designed to send small payloads into orbit was cancelled moments after starting. The ‘mothership’, a specially modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl had taken off from Mojave Air and Space Port, had reached 35,000 feet and had released its Launcher One module. The plan was that the rocket’s booster stage would then ignite, propelling it upwards. But instead, the ignition was cancelled by ground control due to an “undisclosed problem”. This is not as bad as it sounds; around 50% of all initial test flights of new systems are cancelled prior to that crucial ignition stage. It is often the case that real life conditions present problems that were not spotted in ground testing.
Low Cost Option
Virgin is aiming for their Launcher One module to take smaller payloads into orbit. The maximum payload it can carry is around 1,100 pounds, though they expect the average payload to be less at around 650 pounds. While this means the launcher can only carry smaller satellites, the cost – t about $12 million – represents an affordable figure for smaller telecommunications companies or research projects.