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T-minus 18 months and counting: Virgin Galactic and the future of space tourism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Twenty-five years ago when Sir Richard Branson (sans the "sir," at the time) called up Boeing and asked for a spare 747, few would have predicted the brash entrepreneur would so radically disrupt the formerly staid business of air travel. Perhaps folks had higher hopes for the former record executives’ feature film production debut at the same time: 1984. But today Branson is master of airlines on six of seven continents, employing hundreds of jets, and now the ennobled Brit predicts, his company is a scant 18 months from the first commercial suborbital flight.

"We’ve got deposits for the first 200 seats at $200,000 a pop," Branson told an audience of roughly 75 business executives and journalists Thursday morning at The Wall Street Journal‘s Viewpoints Executive Breakfast series. In roughly 18 months, Sir Richard, his parents and his children will go into space. "My father just wants to get to heaven quicker," he says.

This isn’t just another Branson lark, like the ocean crossings via hot air balloon. Virgin Galactic plans to capitalize on the fact that 90 percent of people, in Branson’s estimation, would like to go into space "if we can guarantee a return ticket." Plus, the company hopes to become a private launcher of commercial satellites, putting some of the burgeoning number of orbiting machines into space for a fraction of the going rate.

Though the tourist trips toward space will start suborbital, the ambitions for the business’s future are at least solar system-scale: NASA astronaut training, a potential partnership with Bigelow Aerospace for inflatable hotels in space and even potentially the development of a two-person craft to tour the moon.

Back on Earth, Branson has focused on cleaning up the planet, perhaps so customers have a reason to come back. In addition to his $25 million prize for the first commercial technology to remove CO2—the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas—from the air, he launched a "Carbon War Room" in Washington, D.C., this week. "If carbon is the threat many believe it to be, it could be worse than World War I and II put together," Branson said. This is a "team of people taking every industry, for instance shipping which is sometimes overlooked, and looking at how to reduce carbon."

Ultimately, Branson seems to be looking for a solution to the climate problem from "geoengineering"—deliberate efforts to manipulate the atmosphere. Biochar, wherein farming plant waste is pyrolyzed and plowed back into the soil to improve water retention and fertility, as well as to bury carbon, could offset the emissions from global use of liquid fuel, Branson claims.

Of course, Branson’s day job—air travel—isn’t doing any favors to the climate, releasing greenhouse gases where they potentially do the most harm, high in the atmosphere. Branson hopes to sign onto a global agreement at the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen to restrain those emissions, provided his airline competitors globally do so as well. And he’s looking into alternative fuels, including jet biofuel derived from algae or isobutanol, a derivative of sugar. "The world is awash with sugar. Sugar is bad for you," Branson said. "Let’s put it in planes," perhaps as soon as 2020, he added.

In the meantime, all that climate-challenging flying on Virgin can get you space miles in hopes of accumulating enough to pay the $200,000 ticket price for initial space trips. Already, the "mother ship" that will launch the actual space flights: VMS Eve, named after Sir Richard’s "mum," got its debut in Oshkosh, Wisc., this past July. And SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital plane for space tourism being developed in part by Branson’s Virgin Group, will be unveiled on December 7, he says, adding: "What started off as a dream to send people just for the excitement of a voyage to look back and marvel at Earth has turned into a business."

VMS Eve Image: © Mark Greenberg

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  1. 1. bcomrie 5:57 pm 10/15/2009

    Marvel at the Earth indeed. . .

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  2. 2. zbfelt 7:23 pm 10/15/2009

    OMFSM! I can’t wait until I have the skrill to pay to see the Earth from orbit!

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  3. 3. pgtruspace 3:05 am 10/18/2009

    I most certinly hope Branson and all his family are the first to go up in this ultra-amusment ride.
    The sooner this thing is killed off the better. Then we can start on EMF true space flight .
    $200,000 per ride to near space and down, what a con man.

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  4. 4. pgtruspace 3:19 am 10/18/2009

    How many 100′s of tons of CO2 emissions per trip? Now how do you spell Hippecrit?
    An EMF drive is all electric and quite inexpensive, a low earth orbit for the price of trans ocean first class ticket. A lot safer then Roman candle technolagy.

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  5. 5. Michael Hanlon 7:50 pm 10/18/2009

    Rail guns are called that for a reason. The ‘g’ force imparted to get you a delta velocity which is high enough to achieve escape velocity would pancake a human body to a pulp no thicker that a pencil. Cargo to space by EMF, OK, People to space, slow but sure , what’s wrong with that? In fact, if you didn’t mind taking a few days to get there, high altitude balloon carried rocketry is a viable alternative. Fill the balloon with ozone, rise to fifty thou ft release the passenger rocket, then release some of your ozone so you get back down in the balloon. (The balloon Captain, not the rocketeers).

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  6. 6. Telrunya 4:31 pm 10/19/2009

    I agree with Michael. Being flattened to a pulp by G forces isn’t quiet the bang for the buck I would want. On the other hand being dropped from a balloon at 50k and hoping the the rockets kick in once you are clear sounds more like an amusment park ride than a sound plan for commercial space travel.

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  7. 7. Michael Hanlon 8:14 pm 10/19/2009

    Ah, but the rocket that gets dropped is aerodynamically designed to work loke a glider. That’s how it gets home. So, rocket ignition failure only means you have to generate a new boarding pass.

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  8. 8. WAEL MOREICHEH 7:36 am 10/21/2009

    if all times physics science meet with jetbioful
    we need more fact about co2

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  9. 9. WAEL MOREICHEH 7:43 am 10/21/2009


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  10. 10. lyra57 8:29 pm 10/21/2009

    You have to start somewhere. The people who are essentially the early acquirers of space tourism will be paving the way for more practical travel later. The Wright Brothers didn’t get very far on their first flights either, but look what they led to! The first customers see things from this perspective.

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  11. 11. Michael Hanlon 11:28 pm 10/24/2009

    If only there were bags at both ends of Art C. Spurge to catch the decimitive vapors which emminate from thence. And you mamma one too.

    .<xox> 10/17/09

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