Branson’s Space Vision Becomes Ever Grander

Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future millionauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

During his public appearances, Virgin Galactic Vice President for Special Projects Will Pomerantz likes to tell his audiences that the first thing he does every morning is to Google his boss, Richard Branson, to find out what the brash British billionaire had committed the employees of his space company to doing while they were asleep.

Pomerantz describes these pronouncements — which typically involve optimistic predictions about the start of SpaceShipTwo commercial service, or Virgin Galactic’s ambitious future space projects — as the billionaire’s affectionate way of inspiring his employers to work harder and faster. It’s all rather amusing, really…cute even…and visionary, Sir Richard’s got that vision thing. Now did I mention — I may have said this, once or twice — that I work at a spaceline. I mean, how cool is that, huh?

Behind the smile and the joking and the pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming promotion for the company, one detects a slight hint of some of the frustration that periodically bubbles up just below Virgin Galactic’s slick exterior . I mean, how cool is it to work at a spaceline whose founder keeps making promises they can’t keep,  wants everything done tomorrow, and has little idea how any of this stuff works? Probably not nearly as cool as you might think.

It probably doesn’t help that Sir Richard’s vision for Virgin Galactic keeps expanding. When he announced the SpaceShipTwo program in September 2004, his goal was to fly tourists on suborbital flights by 2007.  The seven-year schedule slip might have discouraged other moguls from attempting anything more ambitious in space. Instead, it appears only to have whetted Branson’s appetite to go deeper into space.

Two weeks ago, Sir Richard gave the most expansive account of his vision for Virgin Galactic’s future. And for once, Pomerantz and his co-workers didn’t have to ask Google what he said.  Branson was right there in Mojave inside The Spaceship Company hangar, sketching out a bold future for his employees and 640 invited guests just two days short of the ninth anniversary of his announcement of SpaceShipTwo.

Commercial suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo were only months away, the billionaire assured a crowd that included about 300 ticket holders. And  we’re not stopping there:

Simultaneously, we will showcase LauncherOne, a transformational satellite orbital launch technology which will unlock access to space to an unprecedented range of new, smart technologies and users. With a potential launch capability of 100 satellites a day, we will be able to transform life back on Earth for every single person through a wide range of innovations and industries.

We’ll also be able to see space based solar power and asteroid mining turn from theory to reality develop better climate and weather monitoring more efficient food production and transportation more effective disaster management and humanitarian assistance and if requested by the United Nations one day launch giant mirrors to reduce solar radiation on Earth offsetting the effects of global warming.

In the future, we expect to be able to launch as many as 100 new small satellites in a 24 hour period or replace 100 satellites within 24 hours and do so with only 24 hours’ notice. Using our experience, expertise, and resources and supported by private sector investment, research, and development, we will extend our manned program towards safe, affordable orbital flights. Our second generation payload vehicles will enable the construction of space science labs and hotels which will also provide sustainable platforms for missions beyond Earth orbit. Using small purpose built two-man space ships based at space hotels, our guests will be able to take breathtaking day trips programmed to fly a couple of hundred feet above of the moon’s surface. They will be able to take in with their own eyes awe inspiring views of mountains, craters, and vast dry seas below. Then in time we hope to launch missions to Mars and beyond.

A little closer to home, as we build out our orbital business, we will leverage our experience and resources to deliver a transcontinental capability for our vehicles leapfrogging the long awaited supersonic aviation successors to Concorde. It is no accident that we shunned the inherent limitations of ground based rockets in favour of winged spacecraft when we chose the design of our first Virgin SpaceShip.

Wow! That’s quite a vision. It encompasses a series of goals that would be daunting for even the world’s largest space agency (NASA), the most capable aerospace companies (Boeing, EADS Astrium), and the most ambitious space start-up (SpaceX). Virgin Galactic, with 300 employees and a single product line, is nowhere near those levels.

Branson, who is 63 years old, usually qualifies his comments by saying he doesn’t expect all these things to happen in his lifetime. It’s also not clear which projects Virgin Galactic might try to develop in-house, and how many it might just handle the marketing, branding and ticket sales for in cooperation with more experienced companies.

The scope of Branson’s vision might be comforting to some of his employees, who can probably envision spending the rest of their careers at Virgin Galactic pursing these futuristic project. That is, if they believe the company is capable of accomplishing all these objectives, and they want to stay at one place that long.

It’s interesting to compare Sir Richard’s vision with those of other billionaires in the space field. Branson’s goals are all over the place, befitting a man who presides over an empire consisting of hundreds of companies, many of which are partnerships.

Elon Musk’s goal of colonizing Mars is no less ambitious than Branson’s vision. However, Musk’s focus is much more laser like in terms of the end goal and the technology that his company, SpaceX, is building to achieve it. There is a clear technology path to get to Mars.

Musk has the street cred of someone who actually has launched hardware into space. His schedules slip and his technology doesn’t always work exactly as a designed, but he has shown the ability to deliver on what he promises. When you hear Musk talk about Mars, you might be inclined to add a decade to his timeline, but you don’t doubt that he could eventually do it.

While it took Musk six years to successfully launch a Falcon 1 rocket and eight years for the Falcon 9, Branson has spent nine year promising to send people into space without getting anywhere near that goal. Periodically, Branson would declare that commercial service would start in 18 months, only to make another prediction once that estimate passed.

While Musk can delve into the precise engineering details of how his rockets and spacecraft work, Branson is primarily a marketing and branding expert. He has built his fortune on a canny ability to analyze how others operate their businesses and doing them in a better way.

Sir Richard likes to portray his venture into space as another example of this practice, but this analogy doesn’t entirely hold up. SpaceShipTwo is not directly competing with the Russians, who sell $40 million seats on the extremely reliable Soyuz transport to wealthy adventurers. Nor is Branson in competition with United Airlines or British Airways with modern airliners that can trace their designs and lineages back 40 to 50 years.

No, suborbital spaceflight is different. Branson finds himself in the position of building and operating a first-generation space vehicle in a suborbital tourism industry that doesn’t yet exist. And he has to operate this technology in an extremely safe manner, lest an accident convince ticket holders that 4 minutes of weightlessness are not worth the risk.

That’s a daunting task in itself, filled with many potential pitfalls that can derail even the best laid plans. The Virgin Group is justifiably praised for running very safe airlines, but it is flying airplanes that are the products of generations of development. Virgin also has never built its own flying vehicles before; in fact, it has little production experience in high-tech fields.

The fact that the suborbital space industry doesn’t exist means that nobody knows anything. What type of vehicle designs will perform best over time? What price points work best? What are the exact sizes of the markets for space tourism and research? How reliable with the systems be? What happens to a company — and the industry as a whole — after its first accident?

Nobody knows yet. So, when Branson goes beyond the suborbital vehicle he has yet to fly into space and talks about point-to-point hypersonic travel, space hotels, two-person day trips around the moon, and even more adventurous human missions to Mars, he is delving into territory about which we know even less. These are high-risk areas in which success is not guaranteed.

For any long-range vision to succeed, it must navigate the short-term obstacles that pose existential threats to the entire enterprise. In Virgin Galactic’s case, that obstacle has been getting SpaceShipTwo safely flying tourists up to space on a regular basis.

The effort has already lasted nine years — one year longer than it took for NASA to land men on the moon. The vehicle has flown only twice under power for short durations at relatively low altitudes. Commercial service scheduled to begin around 2007 has now slipped into 2014.

Even that estimate is questionable. Sources tell Parabolic Arc that the rubber-nitrous oxide hybrid engine being used for flight test isn’t powerful enough to get SpaceShipTwo into space with any sort of payload. Alternatives are now under development, but it’s not clear whether or when they might be available for flight test.

During his visit to Mojave, Branson once again exuded confidence, predicting a test flight into space in February and commercial service beginning sometime later in 2014.  He also waxed philosophically about the years of delays.

“We have this wonderful astronaut club, where we go to Necker Island, we go to South Africa together and this has been going on for a number of years and all of those people are part of that club and quite a lot of them participate,” Virgin founder Richard Branson told Discovery News.

“Actually, I think they would almost rather that the program was delayed because they enjoy the buildup. The foreplay sometimes can be just as exciting as the climax,” he said.

In other words, Branson has a large group of high net-worth individuals that he wants to expand to whom he can cross-sell all of Virgin’s other services and products.  Over a two-week period late last year, he personally entertained two separate groups of future spaceflight participants down at his private Necker Island retreat in the Caribbean. Retail rates for a 7-day stay on the island start at $26,600 per couple.

The foreplay comment is an interesting — and not entirely flattering — comparison that Sigmund Freud would have had some fun analyzing back in the day. Nine years of promises to give people the rides of their lives, and they still can’t get SpaceShipTwo all the way up to space and the engine only lasts for 20 seconds.

That’s not a pretty image. Either Branson can joke about all this because he’s confident that all the technical problems have been resolved, or things aren’t going well and he’s made the biggest Freudian slip of the NewSpace Age.

Time will tell.

  • dr

    Virgin Group has always been a Services business. That is what it is brilliant at. Running things or organising things.
    Designing and building machines are activities in which it has no real history or experience.
    Another example of Virgin Group trying to build something is Virgin Oceanic. They are trying to build an ultra sophisticated submarine to travel to the bottom of the oceans. It is beset with technical problems and delays. Its mission was due to be completed by the end of 2012 and AFAIK they are still testing the submarine prior to beginning the mission.
    Richard Branson has successfully run a record company, an airline, a bank, a hotel group, a media company and a railway amongst others.
    The other thing that makes this difficult for Sir Richard, and I don’t mean any disrespect, is that whilst he is a brilliant entrepreneur, he isn’t a very bright bloke. He left school with almost no academic qualifications mainly due to being dyslexic. And in a technical operation like building a spaceplane / spaceline it helps to have some academic ability to understand some of the technical details and challenges.

  • DBC

    Another Richard Branson/Virgin Galactic slam piece?

    Yawn.

  • Dennis Stolwijk

    $10 says Branson will announce he can take people to visit Pluto soon 😛

    Man, that guy is so full of it!

  • Carolynne Campbell

    The reality gap widens. Can anybody, with any basic understanding, take this Bozo seriously any more? Would you want to ride on a plane operated by a delusional idiot? The support is evaporating fast and, in spite of all the intimidation, the truth is coming out. What little shred of credibility VG had has just been shot down by Branson’s mouth. Read Bower’s biography of Branson, which could not be stopped by Sir B’s lawyers, because it’s accurate. It’s an eye-opener, and it’s littered with a disdain for technical realities. There’s a lot of truths to come out, some of them pretty nasty.

  • DBC

    Yikes.

  • Douglas Messier

    Carolynne is talking about Tom Bower, who has written biographies of a lot of famous people. Branson once sued him for libel — and lost.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Bower

  • Douglas Messier

    Branson has gone beyond having a space company. He’s got an entire space program now. Or at least the outlines of one. And the scope of it is very broad.

    Some of this is feasible in the near term. I’m not sure what precisely Branson is talking about in terms of second generation orbital vehicles. Maybe SpaceShipThree? I’m not sure what that is, exactly. And I’m not sure if SpaceShipTwo is on the technology path to get them there. I can see XCOR’s Lynx as contributing to a planned reusable orbital successor.

    Virgin Galactic already has a marketing agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation to sell tickets should Dream Chaser get funded by NASA (or, in the alternative, private sources). And if Bigelow puts up his space stations, they could serve as hotels that Virgin can handle services for and brand.

    As for day trips around the moon….I don’t know if anything’s going on seriously with that. Could be. Mars is even further down the road.

    Everything I read about hypersonic point-to-point travel indicates it’s probably 20 years away, if that. There are really basic, fundamental issues with traveling at that speed — materials and control surfaces, for example, tend to behave in unusual ways. There’s fundamental research being done on those things. Advances are likely to come from government funded research.

    You never say never on timelines. You can predict 20 years and then there’s breakthroughs that shorten that time. On the other hand, it could take even longer. Going from basic research to making such travel affordable — even for the super rich — and profitable for companies can take a long time.

  • lars0

    Doug, do you have any more details on the motor? Is it a SS2 weight issue or a motor underperformance issue, and can you share anything else?

  • therealdmt

    Ah — that potentially explains a lot. He already knows Sierra Nevada from his motor dealings. So, he is (possibly?, probably?) envisioning a Virgin Galactic-branded Dream Chaser as a follow-on, orbital vehicle. That could be very cool, actually (as I have my doubts about Dream Chaser getting fully funded, let alone selected for commercial crew). This could give the Dream Chaser a non-NASA path forward.

    With an orbital vehicle, branding a Bigelow module/complex as a Virgin Galactic orbital hotel is a no brainer.

    There’s just that one pesky detail of getting the Spaceship 2 vehicle working and its suborbital business up and running to work out first…

  • dr

    Doug,
    I find XCOR’s roadmap quite interesting. I wonder whether they created it themselves, or borrowed it from a British company, named Bristol spaceplanes. (The UK firm, whilst being founded in ’91 to supposedly do what XCOR are doing, has never attracted any significant funding, I’m not sure why)
    The roadmap set out by Bristol spaceplanes, calls for a Lynx type vehicle which they name Ascender, and then in the second phase, the Ascender (Lynx) technology is scaled up twice, to produce a slightly larger version of Ascender, and a very much larger version, which together form the first and second stages of an orbital vehicle which they name Spacecab.

  • dr

    I’m not sure that VG had a lot of input into the design of SS2. I know that there is a video of a talk that Burt Rutan did, back when he was nearing the end of the Paul Allen funded SS1 programme, where he states, that whilst SS1 isn’t really much use as a commercial vehicle, if you scaled up that technology, you could make a six or eight seater spaceplane that could achieve sub-orbit for a cost of around $20k per seat. (That’s cost not price). So he thought that there might be a market for such a vehicle at that price point. I suspect that Burt had already designed SS2 before VG got involved, and that VG effectively just funded Burt’s dream. If this is the case, then there may well not be any roadmap beyond SS2 to an orbital reusable vehicle. It would just be a case of using the revenue and profits from SS2 operations to fund an orbital development programme from scratch.

  • dr

    I’m not sure that Dreamchaser has the right price point to be able to supply a vibrant space hotel industry, particularly if it is launched from the top of an Atlas 5. It may be that VG would not want to enter that market, whilst launch prices remained at the currently expected levels.

  • Aerospike

    In “Black Sky – The race for space” Burt Rutan talked about a bigger successor to SS1 (aka SS2) as well as a plan of a generation 3 vehicle capable of reaching orbit.

  • dr

    Thanks

  • dr

    http://www.virgin.com/travel/branson-buys-pluto-reinstates-planet
    Too late….
    (Check the date on the article)

  • therealdmt

    Lol! I applaud Sir Richard. Pluto’s demotion has been a bit of a sore point with me too.

    Virgin Plutonians — could be interesting…

  • therealdmt

    That Atlas launch price is definitely a problem.

    The Falcon 9R might be a possibility (Boeing said they’re looking into it as a potential alternate launch vehicle for their capsule), but I wonder if it could take the aerodynamic bending loads imposed by the lifting body. I remember SpaceX backed out of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Stratolaunch project saying that the Falcon, due to its construction, would have had to be modified too much to fulfill the role.

    Speaking of which, Orbital/StratoLaunch might be another possibility — again, Branson has a strong relationship with this company already, through Rutan.

    Other possibilities might include using a launcher from overseas such as Ukraine or something of that nature, though that brings in extra political hurdles (among a host of other issues).

  • Douglas Messier

    The rubber/nitrous oxide engine has proven to be difficult to scale up. There are many technical challenges: avoiding a hard start, getting the rubber to burn evenly and consistently, damping out oscillations, and not having large chunks of the rubber fly out of the nozzle. (You get a chuck of that gets lodged in the throat, and goodbye.)

    My sources indicate that this type of a hybrid has never been run full scale and at full duration and just isn’t powerful enough for what they need. Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corporation, which builds that engine, denied this to me when I asked him about it during NewSpace 2013. But, my sources are quite clear that his statement is not correct.

    They have been testing alternatives using internal resources and external vendors. I saw tests of alternative hybrids in December and January. There have been other tests that I have not witnessed. Scaled blew up a nitrous oxide/nylon engine in a test in May, wrecking the test stand, damaging the nitrous tank, and sending the engine casing and nozzle flying across the desert. They landed quite a distance from their original location. Pictures taken after the incident are quite startling.

    There has been work done on liquid-fuled propulsion. I know less about that subject. Some of it I believe overlaps with the work they’re doing on the LauncherOne project. A reliable, robust and reusable liquid fuel system would be a good long-term solution that would solve a lot of problems. It would make SpaceShipTwo less expensive to operate because you wouldn’t have to replace the engine after each flight. That’s time consuming and expensive. You could also increase the flight rate.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s interesting. I wasn’t aware of that. Will Whitehorn when he was running VG was keen on portraying this as a VG decision. Well, yeah, you could have beefed up SS1 to fly passengers, but what would be the fun in that if they couldn’t float around. He said (or implied) that this was VG bringing its experience into the project, looking out for the interests of its customers by enhancing their experience.

    I’m not really sure what SS3 is or if there is any firm design for it. I’ve never a clear explanation for what it’s supposed to do or what it’s supposed to look like. They may exist and are being kept secret, which makes perfect sense. It’s not clear if it’s an orbital system or point to point or some hybrid design capable of doing both in different variants.

    It’s also not clear whether VG would want to work with Scaled on it or vice versa. They’re two very different companies with varied approaches to doing things, and I don’t think the SS2/WK2 experience was a good one for either company. They’re no longer partners on The Spaceship Company. I think Scaled would love to finish up testing on SS2 and turn the the whole thing over to Virgin to continue on with.

  • Douglas Messier

    Funny.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know if borrowing it from Bristol is an accurate supposition. My guess is the XCOR guys would disagree with that strongly if you asked them.

    Groups can develop similar ideas in parallel. Fully reusable, multi-stage space vehicles isn’t an original concept. It’s really how you implement it. And, more fundamentally, whether you can raise the money and hire the talent and work out all the engineering and technical and operational challenges and make the system work reliably and in an affordable manner. That is, getting from an idea to operational status.

    The Lynx design they have came out of the Xerus, which was a similar design for a spaceplane that was more fighter like (two person, one seated in front and the other behind him). That’s evolved a lot, and the orbital system has evolved and will continue to evolve based on what happens with Lynx.

  • Douglas Messier

    Burt Rutan has talked about using Stratolaunch to launch human missions, possibly to the moon. From what I have heard, I doubt he would want to work with Branson again. They’re just too very different people with different approaches to things. I don’t think the SS2/WK2 experience was very good for either of their companies. I don’t know how close the Branson/Allen relationship is, either. Then again, if the economics of a deal are right, then why not? You never say never.

    I think the concerns about the Dream Chaser are valid. Will it be chosen by NASA (my guess is probably not), will it find private funding if it isn’t (possibly), and is it competitive from a price point using the Atlas (I don’t know). For Virgin, such a deal has few drawbacks. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you haven’t invested very much.

  • Christopher James Huff

    From what I’ve read, one of the things they did in response to the tank explosion that killed some workers a while back was to start diluting their nitrous oxide with nitrogen to reduce its sensitivity. This will also reduce the specific impulse of the engine.

    Remember the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. There’s a linear relationship between delta-v and specific impulse, and an exponential one between delta-v and mass ratio. I wonder if their switch to diluted nitrous oxide means scaling up a rocket to maintain the same delta-v would make it too heavy for the White Knight Two, SpaceShipTwo, or even its own thrust.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Bragging about how they “shunned the inherent limitations of ground based rockets in favour of winged spacecraft” while planning to use someone else’s more capable ground based rockets to launch his passengers to stations launched by other people on more ground based rockets seems a bit odd…but perhaps not out of character for Branson.

  • Nickolai

    As an undergrad in aerospace engineering at Purdue I was on a team of about 18 students in my senior year for a project to build a LOX/LCH4 engine to specs (thrust, Isp, etc.) provided by NASA. After two semester of work, we were able to get the injector designed, built, and waterflow tested, and the combustion chamber designed and built, I think we even did some igniter testing. The point is, if a small group of relatively inexperienced people could accomplish that much within a year, working part time (this was for a 3 credit hour class), I wonder why they don’t just go full steam ahead on the rumored LOX/Kero engine. Of course, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, they will probably need an engine with greater thrust than we were building and will have a strict qualification testing program, but they’ve got a lot of smart people working there full time, and developing LOX/Kero engines is almost straightforward at this point. With the benefits, as Doug noted, it seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again I’m on the outside, like the rest of us, so that’s that.

  • Tonya

    Sadly, the headline “Entrepreneur loses millions in failed space venture” isn’t one too look forward to.

  • Some Old Desert Rat

    >strict qualification testing program

    Yep, that’ll do it…

  • Some Old Desert Rat

    Amen to that!

    I really wish less of us were cheering AGAINST Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

  • Douglas Messier

    The project is being funded primarily by the governments of Abu Dhabi and New Mexico. They have put in $721 million. Abu Dhabi’s investment through aabar is $490 million for 37 percent equity and LauncherOne, which more than made VG whole for the company’s initial expenditures on the project. New Mexico’s bill is up to $230 million, including a $21 million loan for two of the three visitors centers.

    If delays drag on for any length of time, it’s going to cost New Mexico more money just to maintain operations even if there are no VG flights. If the program doesn’t go at all, New Mexico will really get screwed. The spaceport is in the middle of nowhere, and access roads to it can’t take a whole lot of traffic. It has no crosswind runway, which makes it less than ideal for space plane testing and operations. It’s not especially useful for general aviation or cargo given the location and access issues. The claw backs if Virgin walks away from the lease are very small. I think between $500,000 and $1.5 million, depending upon circumstances of the exit.

    How annoyed Abu Dhabi’s leaders would be is an interesting question. It’s a lot of money. On the other hand, one of the nation’s leaders just put down about $400 million on a new super yacht. By contrast, New Mexico is a very poor state with a high poverty rate.

  • Actually doing a circumlunar flight, as opposed to a lunar lander flight, is not that hard once you are in orbit.
    If you have a high efficiency hydrolox stage such as the Centaur, then a rule of thumb is you can send about the same mass in payload to trans lunar injection, needed for a circumlunar flight, as the propellant mass of the stage. So the Centaur has about a 20 metric ton propellant load, and it can send a 20 mT payload to TLI.
    If you used a Dragon capsule at about a 4 mT dry mass, you would only need a hydrolox stage at about a 4 mT propellant load.

    Bob Clark

  • Thanks for that info on the hybrid engine. It’s understandable why Burt Rutan wanted to go with a hybrid for a commercial tourism vehicle because of safety reasons. However, the explosion at Scaled Composites showed hybrid engines have their own safety issues.
    Then I think VG should have went with a liquid fueled engine. Studies have shown a SpaceShipTwo sized vehicle could be suborbital on its own from the ground, without needing a carrier aircraft, using a hydrolox engine. The engine proposed to be used in the studies is the under development Vinci engine. But it would work with two copies of a hydrolox engine already in use by the ESA, the HM7.
    The HM7 has been in use for over 30 years on all versions of the Ariane from Ariane 1 to Ariane 5. It’s been used successfully on over a hundred flights so it is well characterized and well understood. Then there would be minimal development cost devoted to the engine, in contrast to the case of the hybrids which have taken up a big chunk of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by VG.
    You also would not have the development cost of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, which must be significant considering its large size.
    In short SS2 would have already been flying if they had decided to use liquid fuel engines. They may even have been able to make the 2007 originally planned starting date.

    Bob Clark

  • zerowolfe

    just blew that thing in the background into a million pieces…thank god these suckers only gave this charlatan their money, and not their lives…jimmy jones with a rocket ship, instead of cyanide laced koolaide!