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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

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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

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

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