Virgin Galactic is an American-based spaceflight company within the British Virgin Group.
The future is now, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is at the forefront of that future with a courageous yet risky leap into commercial space travel with SpaceShipTwo.
Like other outfits, Virgin Galactic has had it’s own share of setbacks. Most recently, in October 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a catastrophic explosion due to apparent pilot error. In spite of the accident, Virgin continues to move forward with the eventual plan of selling suborbital flights for $250,000 a trip on a vehicle that holds six passenger and two pilot seats. While the time frame has been pushed back, progress is being made, and the eventual goal is to add orbital vehicles to the sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo fleet.
$250,000 is no small amount, but it’s much less than the $51 million charged to singer Sarah Brightman for a single seat on the Russian Soyuz rocket. One might say it’s almost affordable, at least for multimillionaires. More importantly, it holds the potential to bring economies of scale into play, further reducing the price and making a trip into space a possibility to the upper middle class of most countries.
Despite the harsh reality and loss of life that occurred in 2014, much of the hard work needed to make Branson’s dream of space tourism is already complete. SpaceShipTwo boasts a truly futuristic base of operations and launch pad in Spaceport America, and the design of the first commercial spacecraft in history has already been demonstrated to be functional. The trick now will be to rebuild after the accident and bring the sub-orbital fleet into reality, starting with the completion and testing of the VSS Voyager in late 2015 as well as holding the trust of the 700 plus people who have already committed to Branson.
Like any new industry, a lot of the initial difficulty in getting off the ground has to do with building the infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is already in place, thanks to government space programs. With the deregulation and privatization of space initiatives in the last decade, much of the brainpower, launch pads, and servicing is now at the disposal of private outfits. Spaceport America further expands upon that, as does companies such as SpaceX and others.
Virgin Galactic is certainly not alone. Other actors, such as Mars One, even boast plans and timetables for space colonization. Virgin, though, is perhaps best positioned with its existing base and near ready-to-launch vehicles to become operational in the niche market of recreational space travel. Once that happens, it’s easy to see how it will become a symbol that feeds upon itself.
There is still a lot of work, and luck, that needs to happen before SpaceShipTwo becomes a reality. Not to mention the fact that many people are still waiting for a full orbital flight that lasts longer than just a few minutes. That said, it’s difficult not to see Virgin launching a successful bid for commercial space flight in the coming years and filling every single seat for the foreseeable future. Once it does, that base of operation will likely become an engine for future outgrowths in the space travel industry.
As with any industry, there is always the threat of competition, but being the first player to the market provides a lot of advantages, and the cost of entry to that market further limits other potential start ups. Assuming a well financed company does not happen upon an unforeseen breakthrough in rocket technology, such as the tantalizing yet uncertain EM drive, Virgin Galactic may be the first successful space travel company to thrive in the coming decade. If that happens, it will also provide many futurists the first opportunity to make good on their dream of space flight.