While Elon Musk’s lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force has dominated the headlines, another development with the potential to restructure the space industry has flown completely under the radar: a deepening relationship between Virgin Galactic and Google.
Overt the past month, Virgin Galactic conducted a series of Google Hangouts about its space tourism program in conjunction with the Google Science Fair. One hangout featured VG Vice President William Pomerantz and Richard Branson’s son, Sam; a second had three engineers live from The Spaceship Company’s FAITH hangar in Mojave, Calif; and a third featured two ticket holders who will be aboard future SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism flights.
On Friday, the Internet colossus returned the favor by sending Megan Smith of Google[x] — the company’s secretive advanced research unit — to participate in a Virgin Disruptors panel discussion on innovation that was also streamed as a Google Hangout. Sir Richard was on hand to provide his thoughts, although viewers are much more likely to remember him cutting off a fellow panelist’s tie than anything he actually said.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) May 9, 2014
Disruption, it seems, comes in many forms.
So, four Google hangouts that promoted both companies. That doesn’t sound like much, you say. In and by itself, it’s not. But, my sources tell me there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.
Google is in an intense race with Facebook and other companies to provide broadband coverage to the entire world. The prize is billions of customers in Africa, South America and other remote areas that don’t have coverage presently. If done properly. the companies could evade the type of censorship imposed by China and other authoritarian governments.
Google[x] is casting a wide net for technologies. There’s Project Loon, which would deliver Internet services via high altitude balloons. Last month, Google purchase Titan Aerospace, a start-up company that produces high-altitude, solar-powered drones capable of delivering high-quality communications services. Facebook had been eying an acquisition of the same company.
Then there’s Google’s rumored satellite project. Word has it that the company is looking to launch approximately 1,200 small satellites into low Earth orbit.
That’s where Virgin Galactic comes in. The company has developed a family of Newton engines for its LauncherOne rocket, which will deliver small satellites into orbit after being dropped from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
Having 1,200 Google satellites to launch would ensure business for many years to come.
A deal with Google would also provide Virgin Galactic with a financial boost. The company has consumed an enormous amount of money as it has tried to develop a working engine for SpaceShipTwo. A program that was supposed to be commercially operation in three or four years is now approaching its 10th anniversary. Money is reported to be tight.
A deal with Google would solidify what is already a strong personal relationship between Branson and Google’s two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In 2007, Page married Lucy Southworth on Branson’s private Necker Island retreat in the Caribbean.
Exactly what a deal would entail is not clear. One possibility is that Google will purchase the Newton engine technology, hire the team behind it, and move operations up to Hangar One at Moffett Field. A Google owned company called Planetary Ventures is now negotiating a long-term lease to take over operations of Moffett from NASA.
That’s but one possibility. Other arrangements are possible.
My sources tell me that an announcement could come soon. We’ll see if they are correct.