Up, up and away ... Branson said he would like to see the company's second spaceport set up in Australia in 2006
INITIALLY dismissed as another Richard Branson publicity stunt, Virgin Galactic is starting to attract serious attention as the potential of the British entrepreneur's ambitious space venture hits home.
It may still be early days, but some observers are already cautiously predicting Galactic will be a turning point in the commercial development of space.
Virgin Blue chief executive Brett Godfrey is among those who believe the technology being developed by Branson's "spaceline" will quickly move beyond joy rides for the well-heeled.
Godfrey, who has paid $280,870 to be among the first to head into space when Virgin Galactic begins operations, can see the concept developing into a new form of travel.
The Virgin boss is far from starry-eyed about his pending trip into the fringes of space. He insists he did not have a lifelong dream to become an astronaut. Instead, he is keen on understanding a technological advance he predicts will produce important spin-offs. He believes there's no reason technology similar to that used by Galactic will not eventually be used for sub-orbital flights between continents.
Instead of cruising back down to the same place, passengers will be able to go to another spaceport on another continent, the airline executive predicts.
"The reason I've invested my money is that I want to be part of the technology and understand it as best we can because I believe this will be the way of the future," he says.
"If, in 10 or 15 years, we're not getting to London in 45 minutes from Sydney, then we will have gone backwards.
"And it doesn't have to be done at a higher fuel cost."
While Godfrey concedes that some people may see the venture as an excuse for rich people to spend money, he points to parallels when aircraft first started flying. "Now it's mass transportation," he says.
"I think we've got to look at alternative technologies."
He points out the value to business people of being able to cut down the time spent travelling between countries to just a couple of hours. "The blokes that own corporate jets today, what would they pay to be able to get to Los Angeles or New York or London within a couple of hours?" he says. "A fortune, I think."
Virgin Galactic passed an important milestone last weekend as it unveiled the design for both SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle that will initially take eight astronauts into space, and White Knight Two, the twin-hulled mothership that will carry SS2 to its launch altitude.
The system is a successor to SpaceShipOne, the Burt Rutan-designed craft that won the $11 million Ansari X Prize after it become the first non-government reusable space vehicle to make it into space.
The original project was backed by a $20 million investment by computing legend Paul Allen – said to be the same amount NASA spent developing a pen that could write in space – although the Microsoft founder was not interested in commercially exploiting the breakthrough. This was when Virgin Group moved in to license the technology. White Knight Two is now close to completion at designer Rutan's Scaled Composites facility in California's Mojave Desert and is expected to start flight testing in the northern summer.
Go green machine
The world's biggest all-carbon composite aircraft has the wingspan of Boeing 757 and is powered by four Pratt&Whitney PW308A engines. It has been designed with the idea of lifting other payloads, such as small low-earth-orbit satellites, into space at costs significantly less than currently available.
SpaceShipTwo is about 60 per cent complete. It also has the flexibility to accommodate scientific and commercial applications.
Galactic now has more than 200 individuals and 85,000 expressions of interest from people wanting to experience space.
This translates to a deposit base of more than $31 million and $50 million in income to the fledgling spaceline.
The plan is to take the astronauts to a height of 110km in a sub-orbital flight that will give them about four and a half minutes of weightlessness.
There will initially be one flight per week but it expects this to increase to one or possibly two a day after operations move to its new spaceport in New Mexico.
The 18m spaceship, which will carry six passengers and two pilots and is about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet, will hitch a ride to about 50,000ft before detaching from the mothership and igniting its hybrid rocket.
This sort of air launch is less fuel-hungry and environmentally damaging than a ground-based launch, and this is what allows the use of lightweight composites.
Scaled Composites is also looking for a more efficient and environmentally friendly fuel than the rubber and nitrous oxide combination that powered SpaceShipOne.
Reach for the skies
The climb to the maximum altitude will take about 90 seconds as the spacecraft reaches three times the speed of sound.
Shortly before the apogee, the spaceship will fold its wings as it prepares to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. The feathered wings are designed to act as an air brake, significantly reducing the forces and heat on the craft during re-entry, until they are deployed at about 60,000ft for an unpowered glide back to the ground.
One of the big questions for passengers and regulators will be the overall safety of the program, which has not been without its mishaps.
Scaled Composites is still trying to determine the cause of a rocket explosion last July that killed three workers and resulted in occupational health and safety fines of more than $28,000.
Rutan admitted at the launch that the accident was delaying the engine's development but said he was confident the spaceship would meet its demanding specifications.
He told reporters that the flights would at least be as safe as air travel in the 1920s and hundreds of times safer than government-funded space travel had been so far.
Galactic has ordered five spaceships and two carriers for its initial operations but Branson makes no secret of the fact that he sees this as just the start.
Branson's space mission
It was the famous physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who got Branson thinking about the project. During a BBC interview, Hawking said that mankind had no option but to get to space as quickly as possible.
"Our population is now heading to 9 billion people by the middle of this century – that's three times more than when I was born," Branson says.
"With the end of the oil era approaching, and climate change progressing faster than most models have been predicting, the utilisation of space is essential not only for communications but also for the logistics of survival through things such as weather satellites, agricultural monitoring, GPS and climate science.
"I also believe that some day we will be able to use space as a source of energy for the planet, through solar power satellites, using the most sustainable source available &$150; our sun."
Branson also sees the potential for delivering satellites and for a sub-orbital, passenger-carrying vehicle, although he admits the later might not happen "for some time".
What part Australia has to play in the commercialisation of space, beyond supplying astronauts, remains to be seen. Branson said in 2006 that he would like to see the company's second spaceport set up in Australia.
By Steve Creedy, Aviation writer