Virgin Galactic is set to sell flights to space by 2010 and Stephen Attenborough plans to make the venture a commercial success…

Virgin Galactic is set to sell flights to space by 2010 and Stephen Attenborough plans to make the venture a commercial success, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

VIRGIN GALACTIC - the company that plans to commercialise space travel - had its roots in a conversation between space pioneer and Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Virgin Group founder and adventurer Richard Branson during a ballooning trip a decade ago.

The topic: why hadn't space travel continued to evolve, to become something anyone could do? Blasting into the ether was still government and military territory. High-profile projects allowed only a select few into orbit. Space voyaging remained a long way away from the vision of sleek commercial travel depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the famous film made at the time of the initial Apollo moon landings.

Ten years later, Virgin Galactic - the self-described "spaceline" company that was Branson's response to that chat - believes it will have its inaugural flight for tourist astronauts by 2010.

Having already proven the concept by building a double-fuselaged craft, WhiteKnight, carrying the prototype space craft SpaceShipOne, that journeys the final distance to space, Virgin Galactic will start its first full test flights with their successor models (WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo) in the next few weeks.

Taking space travel forward, away from the limited national space programme models, is intrinsically bound with bringing in entrepreneurs, looking for valid business models and commercialising space, says Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's ebullient commercial director. One suspects he rather enjoys handing over a business card with 'Earth' as part of the formal address, and which carries the slogan, "Space is Virgin territory".

A lot of small boys would have dreamed of growing up to such a job. The former City of London Investments specialist says Virgin views space as first and foremost, a fresh business opportunity ("all business is a business"), but surely it is just that extra bit special?


He laughs. "Well, we're doing things for the very first time. That's enormous fun and it's a privilege to be part of it, and the challenge I like most," he says. "But as Richard Branson says, we most need Virgin Galactic to be a commercial success, just like any other business. The strategies you put in place are very much like anywhere else."

Still, Branson is well known for his deep pockets, sense of adventure, formidable entrepreneurial drive and a fascination with aeronautical challenges - surely, Virgin Galactic must represent the ultimate coming together of what Sir Richard likes best?

"I think it's very exhilarating for him and his favourite part of the business. He encourages a risk-taking culture, so Galactic fits in very neatly. Virgin has done quite well looking at sectors where the public has been served quite badly."

That's the understatement of the year, given that space is a sector where the public hasn't been served directly at all. Only 500 people in the past four decades have ever ventured beyond earth's pale blue atmospheric envelope.

"I know Richard Branson has wanted to go to space since he was a child, and has been a bit frustrated that no one had let him do it," laughs Attenborough. So commercialising space "is a classic Virgin challenge, I should think". He says commercial space travel will be utterly different from the Apollo days. "Everything about getting to space in those days had been about a power struggle. The technology available was military technology," he says.

A rarified circle of highly trained men blasted into space in a little capsule on top of a massively expensive and powerful rocket. It wasn't exactly the most efficient or the safest approach to air travel to get just three people at a time into space, sitting on top of millions of dollars worth of electronics and highly volatile rocket fuel, he says.

"If anything goes wrong, the game is over. The cost is enormous, and it doesn't meet any sort of viability model."

The alternative turned out to be in a hangar in the middle of California's Mojave desert, at aviation maverick Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites research aircraft company. Rutan is legendary in aeronautical engineering and flight adventurer circles - his Voyager aircraft made the first round the world flight on a single tank of fuel in 1986, and now hangs in the Smithsonian aircraft next to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis.

Branson had an existing connection with Rutan because he was interested in his work with carbon composite aircraft that, due to their light weight and overall design, could achieve incredible fuel efficiencies. Branson along with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had helped fund Rutan's Global Flyer carbon composite aircraft, which the late Steve Fossett had piloted solo around the world in 2005 on a single tank of fuel.

"We wanted manufacturers to take notice, and they have - the Boeing 787 is 50 per cent carbon composites and 30 per cent more fuel efficient," says Attenborough. Branson funded Rutan to put forward a craft to win the $10 million (€8 million) Diamondis-Ansari "X" Prize, on offer for the first group to successfully launch a privately-funded, reuseable spacecraft into space and back, twice within two weeks.

Rutan took the prize in 2004 with the prototypes for the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, a double-fuselage, single winged plane that carries the "stumpy" spacecraft up to 50,000 feet then releases it for the final segment of the journey.

With safety always going to be a key concern for commercial spaceflight, Rutan's breakthrough was to model a spacecraft on a shuttlecock. A shuttlecock always flips over once it reaches the apex of its flightpath, and its descent is slowed naturally by its feathered tail. The Rutan spacecraft has a retractable feathered design that will tilt the craft back towards earth and decelerate re-entry into the atmosphere, so that unlike Nasa's space shuttle, its hull won't be exposed to the searing heat from the friction of the earth's thicker atmosphere.

The rocket fuel that will blast the craft to 360,000 feet in 90 seconds is also far safer and is non-explosive in its component parts of nitrous oxide and, bizarrely, a rubber compound. The rocket fuel is only used for the brief acceleration - the craft actually glides without power back to its base in the desert. The prototype has made three journeys into space to prove its viability.

Branson figured that in terms of cost and safety, commercial space travel was now in reach and Virgin Galactic was born. The first tickets, priced at $200,000 (€159,000), went on sale in 2005 with the first 100 customers - one fourth are women - ponying up the full amount. Another 200 have since placed smaller deposits as well, to give the company $45 million in cash deposits (not used to fund ongoing research).

The actual commercial models are ready to start test flights before Christmas, he says, with the test flight programme ready to continue "as long as needed". Safety is the priority and commercial flights won't open until Virgin is confident that a space flight will have the reliability of a Virgin Atlantic journey.

"This will be a ride of complete sensory overload. It will be so different than what anyone's done before," says Attenborough.



The tickets: $200,000 (€160,000) available now from agents around the world, or book online at

The flight: the spaceship holds six passengers and two pilots and will be carried up to 50,000 feet suspended from the single overhead wing of the double-fuselage WhiteKnight carrier craft. At 50,000 feet, the spaceship is released and ignites its hybrid rocket. During the brief space flight, passengers will be able to float in weightlessness and take in the views.

The citizen astronauts: 300 people have already placed their deposits. Five are Irish (including Bill Cullen, PJ King and Tom Higgins).