A Virgin Galactic brochure image of Spaceport America in full swing
A Virgin Galactic brochure image of Spaceport America in full swing

Richard Branson’s space ambitions have come into sharper focus after he revealed his rocket ride venture, Virgin Galactic, is joining two other highly credentialed US organisations in submissions to NASA on private sector participation in orbital spaceflights.

The language of his announcement is right from the play book of successful Virgin ventures too, in referring to ‘stagnant technologies’ and lowering the costs and thus elevating the access of people to space.

He is clearly looking at radically improving the market for orbital space flights as being the sequel to the sub orbital joy flights that Virgin Galactic expects to launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico in less than two years.

Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, the designer of Spaceship 2 in a test vehicle
Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, the designer of Spaceship 2 in a test vehicle

The Virgin Galactic rocket rides will take  six passengers on an intricate journey which has a five minutes zero G experience at a peak altitude of around 110 kilometres as the summit of a trip lasting more than half an hour from takeoff to touch down. Initially expensive at around $200,000 for the flight (and the associated preparations)  these flights are expected to become much less costly as the volume of the business grows.

But private orbital flights to the International Space Station today using Russian Soyuz spacecraft are rare and incredibly costly, with recent references to price as being around $40 million for a future trip lasting around 11 days, with some uncertainty about availability as the end of US Space Shuttle flights puts a squeeze on the capacity that is provided by the Soviet era equipment.

There are various plans to create space ‘hotels’ in orbit, including at least one in which the stopover would be part of a transfer to a vehicle that would fly around the far side of the moon before returning directly to earth.

When Branson’s partner in the foundation of Virgin Blue, Brett Godfrey, gave the Kingsford Smith lecture this year, he made a number of references to Virgin Galactic being the start of much bigger things, including high speed sub orbital intercontinental flights.

Connecting the dots provided by Godfrey and Branson, including Branson’s readiness to relinquish control of Virgin Atlantic  in a possible merger with another carrier, we are starting to see a potential Virgin Space Empire take shape. An enterprise that starts with rocket rides, scales up the technology to fast long range intercontinental rocket services, and extends into orbit for commercial space lifts.

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