Space travel isn’t just for astronauts anymore. Virgin Galactic is poised to change everything.
MOJAVE, Calif. — Deep inside The Spaceship Company’s secretive Building 79, a man points to a rigid but lightweight panel made from carbon fiber that is the thickness of two decks of cards.
The absurdity of what he’s about to say makes him smile.
“There’s just about one inch between you and space,” says Enrico Palermo, president of Virgin’s The Spaceship Company, which is tasked with building the plane-like crafts that Virgin Galactic plans to use to take paying customers on a joy ride into the cosmos next year.
“That’s it, one inch,” says Palermo, pointing at the thin hull material and shaking his head. “Amazing what humans can do.”
Especially when it comes to space. Venturing into the cosmos has always packed a thrill, a risk, an adventure and a cost in both dollars and lives. Forever, it was down to government agencies and professional astronauts to pay that price and reap those rewards. But no longer.
If all goes to plan, though admittedly little in the realm of space exploration does, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic could be the first of a few tech-titan-fueled private space ventures to blast ordinary humans into space and return them safely to Earth.
Whether Virgin Galactic becomes merely a thrill ride for those with $250,000 for a ticket or a giant leap for mankind remains a looming question.
For his part, Branson is confident his new company will be both, a unique adventure whose payoff — the so-called Overview Effect, where humans gape in wide-eyed awe at our big blue marble from 50 miles high — will generate a protective love of home.
“We will provide a platform for those (Virgin Galactic customers) to share their experiences and accelerate the global understanding of a fundamental truth, that we are essentially all in this together, fellow passengers on spaceship Earth,” Branson says in an email exchange.
“I am,” he adds, “one of those who feels reasonably optimistic for the future of planet Earth as a good place for humans to live, despite the huge challenges.”
With his “leave Earth to appreciate it” mission statement, Branson is taking a tack that differs from that of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin rocket company envisions humans living and working in space, or SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who famously is aiming for human colonization of Mars.
But where Blue Origin officials say only that tickets go on sale next year for its autonomous space ride and SpaceX has plans to send up a lone customer as more of a one-off venture, Virgin Galactic is making noises that 2019 could bring regular customer trips out of its futuristic Spaceport in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Some might not be holding their breath. Virgin Galactic has a history of promising imminent flights dating back a decade. In 2008, Branson predicted an inaugural flight within 18 months, and reiterated that timing in 2011. In the spring of 2013, Branson predicted he’d be space-bound by Christmas, perhaps dressed as Santa.
But missed targets aside, at the very least a spirit of competition between three men who have been passionate about cosmic adventures has spawned a new space race.
“Elon and Jeff and Richard have looked at the human-based (government space) programs that existed and concluded rightly they weren’t keeping pace,” says Christian Davenport, author of “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.”
“These folks come out of the tech world, or in Richard’s case he’s funded all sorts of ventures, and they operate at a quick pace,” says Davenport. “There’s overall a huge frustration that, after NASA stepped away (from the Space Shuttle program), that we haven’t pushed farther into space. No one’s flown (tourists) into space. But Virgin Galactic now is getting close.”
Tour starts with a dawn flight
USA TODAY recently visited the company’s longtime desert-based headquarters two hours north of Los Angeles to check on the company’s progress as it races toward its first commercial launch.
Each 90-minute Virgin Galactic trip will star two pilots and six passengers, including on the inaugural ride with Branson and his two children, Sam and Holly, as well as for the first of 600 customers who have already paid for flights (they’re refundable if you opt to bail).
The rare facility tour — which was focused on a series of cavernous facilities dedicated to manufacturing and testing its plane-like SpaceShipTwo (SS2) — kicked off with a dawn launch of WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), the massive, albatross-shaped mothership that carries SS2 50,000 feet for its airborne launch.
As the gangly white craft taxied down the runway, Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay, an amiable Scot who is one of a half-dozen experienced fliers slated to ferry customers into the great beyond, waxed lyrical about the joy ride.
“We’ve all been around the block,” says the former Royal Navy and ex-Virgin Airlines pilot. “But when we do these tests (of SS2), we’re just like little kids again.”
Mackay runs through the sequence that Virgin Galactic customers will experience. After strapping into their reclining seats, SS2 is taken to just above commercial jet altitudes by WK2. “We’ll talk a bit, but won’t bore them,” Mackay says with a laugh.
At cruising altitude, things get serious. WK2 drops SS2 and banks away sharply. “You’ll feel like you just went over the lip of a rollercoaster,” says Mackay. Just under 4 seconds later, with WK2 safely away, pilots will light the rocket aboard SS2, a solid rubber compound that is ignited by nitrous oxide.
“That’s when the fun starts,” says Mackay, a veteran of numerous such test flights as Virgin Galactic pushes toward commercial readiness. SS2 suddenly takes off like a Roman candle, heading straight up and subjecting passengers to three times the force of Earth-bound gravity.
Pushing speeds close to Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, SS2 will take roughly 60 seconds to reach the blackness of space, which officially starts at 50 miles up.
And then, almost instantly, silence as the rocket exhausts itself. SS2 then will gracefully pivot upside down, giving the new astronauts an unfettered view of the earth through 12 big portholes.
“They can then unbuckle and float around,” he says of the few minutes of weightless that mark the defining moment of the trip. “Then it’s back in the seats and the flight back home.”
‘The ultimate adventure trip’
For those waiting to board SS2, the moment of truth can’t come soon enough.
Vivien Cornish, 54, was given a ticket to ride by her husband to mark her 50th birthday. The retired money manager from Sydney says she doesn’t like cars or jewelry but has “always been into adventure travel, and this is the ultimate adventure trip.”
Cornish says she has met some of her fellow ticket holders — which Virgin Galactic calls Future Astronauts — at sponsored trips that so far have included group visits to the California headquarters, attendance at air races in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and a gathering at Branson’s retreat on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands.
“For some people, it’s all about the zero G experience, but for me it’s about the Overview Effect,” she says. “Earth is wonderful and we have to look after it.”
For businessman and philanthropist David Perez, 55, of Solano Beach, California, buying a ticket on Virgin Galactic was an instant impulse purchase.
“What, there’s 8 billion people on Earth but only a thousand have been to space, and I’ll be the first Moroccan Jew in space,” says Perez, laughing.
Like some of his fellow Future Astronauts, Perez has tried to make sure he stays in good shape for his eventual trip. Virgin Galactic says that anyone who is reasonably healthy should be eligible for the journey.
The most difficult parts of the trip will be the 4G force while ascending, and the zero gravity experience in that it could make some travelers nauseous.
But, ultimately, it’s up to customers, who no doubt will sign lengthy waivers, to try and be in the best condition possible to maximize their quarter-million-dollar trek.
“Who knows if I’ll blow up and die,” says Perez. “But I just love being part of this community of people pursuing their passions and dreams.”
2014: A death but not a setback
Death has in fact visited the Virgin Galactic effort.
On Halloween 2014, test co-pilot Michael Alsbury lost his life when an early iteration of SS2 broke up in flight. Co-pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured on his 10-mile fall back to Earth.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the craft, which was built by Scaled Composites, did not have enough safeguards in place to prevent the pilot-error incident.
Not far from Virgin Galactic’s compound there is a small memorial for a half-dozen pilots who have died while testing in and around Mojave, a storied location where fabled Air Force ace Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947.
Next to a plaque with Alsbury’s name and photo sits a bouquet of flowers, fresh like the memories of his tragic death.
“That was a terrible time for us,” Mackay says quietly when asked about morale. “But now it’s good. Mike was a lovely guy and he wouldn’t have wanted us to stop. So part of the reason to continue testing was the sacrifice he made.”
Mackay looks up at the cloudless blue sky. “Space isn’t easy,” he says. “People have been dying in this pursuit from the get-go. So we’re just building on the shoulders of those giants. They weren’t crazy, but let’s just say they had a different approach to risk.”
After the crash, Virgin Galactic began using SS2s built by its Spaceship Company. Branson says Virgin Galactic engineers are relying on increasingly sophisticated technologies that build new levels of safety into a space launch.
These include ferocious rockets that nonetheless can be shut off if necessary and advanced composites that provide not only high levels of structural rigidity but also the critical bonus of spacecraft reusability that keeps space travel costs in check.
“That isn’t to say that we can eliminate all risk or that getting to a point where it’s appropriate to start flying paying passengers was ever going to be quick or easy,” he says, adding that nonetheless “with patience and perseverance we will be capable of delivering a repeatable experience at levels of safety that both we and our customers require.”
That buoyed optimism is met with some skepticism from David Cowan, a longtime space company investor with Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California.
“The word tourism (in space tourism) belies the risk of early civilian missions,” says Cowan, who maintains that one fatal accident will “inevitably and episodically” suspend ventures such as Virgin Galactic for months or years.
Cowan allows that Branson’s “raw ambition and ego are authentic,” and combined may well find Virgin Galactic able to achieve lift off.
But the investor is less bullish on an oft-mentioned by-product of Virgin Galactic’s high tech efforts: The development of a 21st-century version of the Concorde that would allow supersonic travel from New York to Sydney in just a couple of hours.
“There are safer, cheaper and more practical supersonic programs underway to succeed the Concorde,” he says.
Branson insists he’d “love to be a part of” transcontinental travel that could reduce endless flight times while cutting down on the jet-fuel-pollution associated with such 15-hour journeys by Boeing or Airbus.
“We have been traveling around now at around Mach 0.8 using fossil fuels for more than half a century and it’s time to seriously pursue faster and cleaner options,” he says, adding that this is why Virgin Galactic designed SS2 as a “winged runway take-off and landing vehicle.”
A cross between a jet and ‘Star Trek’
Standing next to SS2, the craft comes across as a hybrid of current and future tech. From the front, it looks like Gulfstream private jet; from the rear, with its massive rear wing “feathers” that help with rotation and re-entry glide, it seems like a Romulan Bird of Prey straight out of Star Trek.
But despite the far-out nature of the spaceship, personal touches abound here inside the giant hangar.
For example, painted on the side of this SS2 is a shapely model wearing a clear helmet, floating in space. The portrait is said to be based on a 1940s photograph of Branson’s intrepid mother, Eve, now 94. (Eve is also the apt nickname for WK2, the mothership that brings SS2 aloft.)
Next to the woman is a logo that clearly looks like an eye’s iris; it is, in fact, an exact copy of the iris belonging to the late Stephen Hawking, who long maintained that space would be the only way for humans to escape extinction.
Just across the way from this parked vessel sit the fuselages of two more SS2s in construction, currently dubbed Etta and Artie, the names of Branson’s twin grandchildren from his daughter Holly.
Between Etta and Artie and the up-and-flying Unity, Virgin Galactic will have three SS2s able to send a total of 18 people into space on a regular basis.
How regular? One flight a week could be possible soon, while the addition of a second WhiteKnightTwo and three more SS2s could allow for three flights a week.
But, company officials insist, nothing will be rushed. SS2 is continuing its regular test flights, with so far dozens being held to check its re-entry gliding ability and six with rocket-power.
To date, the rockets have burned for as long as 41 seconds, working their way up to the 60-second burn required for Virgin Galactic’s regular parabolic space flights.
Galactic CEO: ‘Heads down on safety’
“We are heads down on safety all the time, otherwise there’s no business model,” says George Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff under the Obama Administration who joined Virgin Galactic as CEO in 2010.
“What we are doing will only help the country’s standing when it comes to space ventures,” he says. “The U.S. leads the world in (rocket) launches, and give us a year and we’ll be leading in human space flight. We will open space up for the rest of us.”
And so the work continues here at Virgin Galactic’s compound in the harsh quiet of the California desert. There’s carbon fiber to bake, a spaceship interior to design and aircraft to test and retest.
But SS2 pilot Mackay can’t wait for that moment he’s given the green light to launch somewhere high above New Mexico.
With every trip into and beyond the stratosphere, he and his fellow pilots are seeing things that cannot be captured by any photo or video, images of space and earth that remain imprinted on his soul. He’s eager to share that view, and see the looks on the faces of his fortunate passengers.
“The sky is a matte black, and the earth’s surface is just so bright, and then you see the atmosphere, so thin, like the skin around an apple,” says Mackay.
“That’s when it hits you hard, we’re all part of this human race,” he says. “You see, if for a moment, where we humans are in the solar system and it is just, well, to be honest, it’s a feeling I cannot describe.”
Follow USA TODAY National Writer Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
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