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.