Virgin Galactic is coming … but how will space tourism work?

How much does a ticket to space go for anyway? NASA

Ten days ago, British business magnate Richard Branson announced a new Virgin venture - Virgin Volcanic: an expedition to the centre of Earth through an active volcano.

As you probably guessed, it was an April Fool’s joke – a very cheesy one, too, as days earlier James Cameron had just reached the ocean’s deepest point, an (actual) expedition that was well discussed on The Conversation.

The Virgin Group is a corporate empire consisting of about 400 companies around the world. But there’s one Virgin venture that is of particular interest and has the potential to be truly groundbreaking: Virgin Galactic - offering commercial seats for space travel.

In December 2009, Virgin Galactic unveiled its first commercial spaceship - the VSS Enterprise – based on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft model (discussed below). The VSS Enterprise is 18 metres long and capable of taking six passengers and two pilots to space.

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company looking at ways to offer space travel to the masses. Insiders forecast that, once fully operational, commercial space aviation could be a US$1 billion industry.

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo releasing SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic

But what are the challenges? And what exactly is involved? Let’s take the example of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft and discuss a few points, such as:

How does it work?

The Virgin spacecraft base model (SpaceShipTwo) does not launch vertically from the ground but horizontally from an aircraft (the WhiteKnightTwo) that takes it to around 50,000ft (about 15km) altitude. By launching at such high altitude, Virgin claims any engine issues that may arise on the way would simply lead to a return journey “gliding” to the ground, adding a layer of safety in case of emergency.

Also, by using a “carrier aircraft plus spaceship” combination to get into space, the set-up required is smaller and lighter than that for rocket-launching systems, which require far greater power. Another advantage is the ability to avoid delays caused by bad weather, as the aircraft can simply climb to a more suitable launch position if required.

The idea to air-launch came from Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites. Rutan is an aerospace engineer who is well known for winning the Ansari X-Prize in 2004, when his company successfully launched SpaceShipOne: the first privately-funded spacecraft to enter the realm of space twice within two weeks. His work caught the eye of Richard Branson, who asked him to join the Virgin Galactic team.

What is the Virgin spacecraft made of?

Virgin Galactic opted for what they call an “all carbon-structure”. That means the spacecraft features a large quantity of carbon-reinforced composite materials. Composite materials are a combination of more than one material, with the final product having better properties than its individual components.

Carbon-fibre-reinforced composites have been around for many decades. There have been major breakthroughs which lead to new generation aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 - both featuring 50% of composite materials by weight.

Carbon-fibre-reinforced composites have a great strength-to-weight and stiffness-to-weight ratio compared to traditional materials, such as steel. This allows for lighter structures, which leads to lower energy requirements (less fuel) to move the structure. They are also more resistant to fatigue and corrosion than metals, and this lowers maintenance costs.

But Boeing and Airbus have both had well-documented issues with composite materials manufacturing. Ensuring high quality on a large scale is no easy task.

The counter-argument is that Virgin Galactic won’t have to manufacture large numbers of their SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in the way Airbus and Boeing do.

On its website, Virgin Galactic claims structural changes can be made if there’s a need, and that it’s as easy as “simply bonding on additional pieces”. But, actually, no – it’s not that easy.

Richard Branson holding a model of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft. Virgin Galactic

People spend entire PhDs trying to optimise composite material properties or enhance manufacturing processes (including the bonding process). But Virgin Galactic is right when it highlights the fact composite materials offer a greater amount of flexibility and “tweaking” than traditional materials.

How does it get to space?

For the engine, Virgin Galactic opted for a hybrid that combines fuel in solid form and oxidiser in liquid form fed through a valve, which allows the pilot to control the motor or shut it down in case of emergency.

Interestingly, the spacecraft glides on the way back to ground. This unpowered descent and landing reduces both fuel consumption and the trip’s carbon footprint. According to Virgin’s calculations, emissions per passenger, per trip, will be approximately 0.8 tonnes – less than a one-way flight from London to New York.

Capitalism reaching for the stars: is it really appropriate to privatise space travel?

You might wonder why NASA isn’t at the forefront of commercial space travel. Back in 2009, Barack Obama made it clear there would be a shift to a more commercial approach to space travel.

That move is in line with announced budget cuts to NASA and the retirement of its Space Shuttle program.

Spaceport America: Virgin Galactic’s launching pad is based in New Mexico, USA. Virgin Galactic

Obama’s announcement created new competition for private businesses (see below) that are now competing to carry astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) and take on space travel at a larger scale.

The author and pilot Lane Wallace, in an article for The Atlantic, argues the right role for NASA is to explore, test and develop cutting-edge technology that increases knowledge. Furthermore, Wallace argues, NASA should reduce risks enough for private companies to then develop commercial applications of these space technologies.

But Wallace also makes a compelling point on the consequences of such privatisation. Private businesses have no incentive to invest in ventures where the result is greater scientific knowledge without any hope of a fiscal return on investment.

Survival (through greater profits), not greater scientific knowledge, prevails in business. And, as such, privatising space travel may change the nature of the field forever.

As you can imagine, the über-rich along with large corporations are very much leading the way and Richard Branson isn’t the only one in the race:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also in the race to space travel commercialisation through his venture, Blue Origin. Forbes
  • Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. In 2009, the company was awarded US$3.7 million in funding by NASA. Blue Origin is focusing on developing a commercial system for sub-orbital space travel.

  • Stratolaunch Systems, co-founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, focuses on developing a cheap way of getting medium-sized payloads into orbit (e.g. mid-size communication satellites). Stratolaunch is currently working on a huge spacecraft with a wingspan of 117m and six 747 engines. Commercial space aviation is part of their plans.

  • Space Adventures was founded in 1998 by Eric Anderson (an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur who made a fortune during the dot-com bubble). Space Adventures offers zero-gravity atmospheric flights and orbital spaceflights.

The list goes on. There are dozens of private space companies: some specialise in military applications, others focus on satellite launches, while a segment of the industry has started to shift its focus to commercial space travel.

How much does it cost?

Prices vary depending on who you decide to fly with. Usually, the more time you spend in space the higher the price.

In the case of Virgin Galactic, a ticket will set you back US$200,000 (with a US$20,000 deposit). This gets you a 150-minute journey through space, during which you would experience weightlessness for approximately five minutes.

Yes, only five minutes - but five minutes of zero-gravity above the skies!

Regardless of which provider you choose, and if you could afford it - would you buy a ticket?