A fleet of 30 to 40 space planes carrying thousands of paying customers on brief journeys out of Earth’s atmosphere. Ticket prices falling steadily, as they did after the early days of aviation, bringing a once-in-a-lifetime trip within reach of a large part of the population. A duopoly that will mint big profits for the only companies positioned to dominate a new space tourism industry.
After 14 years, Sir Richard Branson was allowing himself to dream big this week. Virgin Galactic, his private space company, had finally reached an important milestone: a test flight that took its SpaceShipTwo vehicle more than 80km above Earth, an altitude that the US considers to be the start of outer space.
Years of predictions that turned out to be wildly over-optimistic could quietly be put aside. “Three more flights should be sufficient before I go up,” the British entrepreneur said in an interview after this week’s test flight over the desert in southern California.
Sir Richard said he would take to the skies over New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic is set to move its operations in the coming months. Given the recent pace of testing and the two months projected for the move, he looks set to earn his astronaut wings soon after the middle of next year.
It has been a long and expensive journey. The Virgin founder said he had spent about $1bn of his own money on the space company, with outside investors contributing another $300m. Two months ago, after reports of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he walked away from negotiations over an additional $1bn investment from Saudi Arabia. Now, however, he predicts that he need only raise an extra $250m before the business becomes sustainable.
Next year is shaping up to be a big one for Virgin’s ambitions in space. In March, Virgin Orbit, a satellite launch company spun out of Galactic, plans to carry its first commercial payload. Both companies use airborne launches, with planes carrying their rockets to a height of about 12km before they are released.
Virgin is hoping that being able to scramble a plane at short notice will give it an edge in the satellite business, making it possible to respond to urgent launches from anywhere in the world.
“If America was to lose satellites at war in the future, we could replace them within 24 hours,” Sir Richard said. “If there’s a particular conflict in a particular region, having those satellites would be really critical.”
He added: “We’ve made clear we’re not getting involved in any overt military stuff with our spaceship companies. But on a defensive thing like that, we’d be happy to do something.”
Placing small communication satellites into low-earth orbit has become the hottest part of the space launch market, leading many to suggest that this business has better prospects. “We’ve got a long list of people who want to get satellites into space,” Sir Richard said.
But it will be Virgin Galactic on which his reputation as a space pioneer will depend.
“The potential finally exists to get hundreds at first, and then thousands of people a year up into space,” Peter Diamandis, a US space entrepreneur, said after this week’s test flight. “That will ultimately change the perspective people have of the planet.”
Mr Diamandis, who is one of more than 600 people to have already paid for a ride on the Virgin spacecraft, dreamt up the X Prize — a $10m award for the first reusable commercial spacecraft. It was won by a forerunner of the Virgin Galactic plane, triggering Sir Richard’s interest in the design. “It’s been an extraordinarily long journey of 14 years,” Mr Diamandis said. “It’s time for all of us to get a chance to go now.”
The biggest engineering challenges in the rocket programme have been overcome, said Mike Moses, a former space shuttle flight director at Nasa who is now president of Virgin Galactic.
The issue facing the company now, he added, is how to turn its one-off test launches into a routine and repeatable process — something it needs to do to squeeze out costs and reduce the time between launches.
It is likely to take time to turn the experimental programme into an efficient commercial operation. Prices will go up initially as Virgin looks to recoup some of its considerable expenses, said Sir Richard. But they should start to fall about three years later as the number of spaceships — and passengers — starts to increase.
The British entrepreneur is now in a race with Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, whose Blue Origin also hopes to put paying passengers into space next year.
According to Sir Richard, there is room in the market for both — but no one else. “I can’t see anybody else coming into this field,” he said. With a 14-year head start, “it’s almost impossible for anybody else to replicate what we’ve done.” By the time a new challenger had its first rocket ready to fly, Virgin could have 20 spaceships in operation.
Virgin already has its next two spacecraft under construction and work on another two is set to begin soon, said Sir Richard. He predicted the fleet could increase to 30-40 vehicles.
He pointed to an inquiry from a potential partner in Italy as the first sign of other potential launch sites around the world. “I think the demand for people wanting to go into space is massive,” he said.
That prediction will soon be put to the test. Virgin Galactic stopped selling tickets four years ago, after a fatal test flight crash. With the hoopla generated by this week’s achievement, sales are set to begin again soon. “I think we can make it a very profitable venture,” Sir Richard said.