Rocket Men: Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic

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October 6, 2018 | BY Madeleine Ross

There's a new chapter in aerospace innovation, a second space race where players are no longer nations but tech billionaires with bold ambitions, fortunes to burn and boyish infatuations with the beyond. Here, we take a look at Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic's mission, achievements to date and what's to come.

Net worth: US$5.1 billion, accrued across Richard Branson’s conglomerate of Virgin businesses.

Mission: Suborbital space tourism. Branson wants to take paying customers to the edge of space and back on rocket-powered space planes under the Virgin Galactic brand. For the price of US$250,000, travellers would be taken as far as the Karman line, which lies 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface and constitutes the boundary between its atmosphere and outer space.

The trip there should take just 63 seconds, Branson predicts, and passengers are promised a few minutes of weightlessness as well as glimpses of the edge of the Earth against the blackness of space. His spaceships will also offer the research community a platform for space-based science. All these goals come under Branson’s overarching objective of “democratising space.”

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How it works: The company’s SpaceShipTwo system consists of a carrier aircraft and a passenger spaceship. The first Virgin Galactic spaceship to enter service is the SpaceShipTwo Unity, or VSS Unity. Its economic viability depends on rapid reuse.

Approach: This marketing guru and serial entrepreneur regularly overpromises in a very public way. He loves courting the media. As a result, the company has become as derided for its delays as it has been celebrated for its lofty ambitions. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper referred to Virgin Galactic’s “much-promised but little-delivered plans” as a “21st-century version of Waiting for Godot.” 

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Milestones: SpaceShipTwo is the world’s first passenger-carrying spaceship built by a private company for operating a commercial service. In May this year Unity completed its sixth rocket-powered flight, reaching supersonic speed and climbing to 35 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, which means it still has a way to go (65 kilometres, to be precise).

Setbacks: In 2014 the previous version of SpaceShipTwo Unity, known as the Enterprise, came apart mid-flight, killing the co-pilot.

Commentators have posited that the company could not survive another fatal crash. Other than this, the only real setbacks have been delays. Branson originally promised a maiden spaceflight by 2010. Despite several announcements about imminent voyages since then, none has eventuated.

What’s next: “It will be something like two or three more flights before we’re actually in space,” said Branson in May this year. Stay tuned. 

Learn more about the other two billionaires involved in the space race: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk

Credits
Illustration: KY Chan

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