Virgin Galactic Turns 10

Virgin Galactic Announced
Virgin Galactic Press Release
Sept. 27, 2004

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan made their announcement to the world’s media that Virgin Galactic was now in a position to commence a programme of work that would result in the world’s first affordable space tourist flights in 2 to 3 years time.

Sir Richard said: “Virgin has been in talks with Paul Allen and Burt throughout this year and in the early hours of Saturday morning signed a historical deal to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to build the world’s first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service.”

Branson Plans Commercial Space Flights
Associated Press
Sept. 27, 2004

The company said it planned to begin construction of the first vessel, VSS Enterprise, next year, and would invest about $108 million in spaceships and ground infrastructure for the venture.

The new service will be called Virgin Galactic and expects to fly 3,000 new astronauts in its first five years. Fares will start at $208,000 for a suborbital flight, including three days’ training.

Branson said the business would “allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”

“Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but a business with the sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable,” Branson said.

“Those privileged space pioneers who can afford to take our first flights will not only have the most awesome experience of their lives, but by stepping up to the plate first they will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality.”

Editor’s Note: Two to three years? Only $108 million for vehicles and infrastructure? Three thousands astronauts in the first five years?

What the hell happened?

Who did these cost estimates? Were they on drugs? How did $108 million turn into something like $400 million just for the vehicles alone? That’s doesn’t even include the $225 million New Mexico spent on Spaceport America.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

How did two to thee years turn into 10? How is it possible to spend an entire decade trying repeat the flight of SpaceShipOne, which itself merely replicated what the X-15 had done 40 years earlier?  And when it does fly, SpaceShipTwo probably won’t even reach the Karman line.

This has hardly been a shining example of the NewSpace paradigm in which the ever efficient private sector would do things faster, better and cheaper than government.

As we mark the 10th anniversaries of Virgin Galactic today and the winning of the Ansari X Prize next week, we are faced with the stark reality that the self-proclaimed orphans of Apollo have created their own set of expectations that remain unfulfilled.

One would hope this situation would be the cause for much debate and soul searching within the community. But, I suspect that it will not. NewSpace has not reached the levels of maturity or accomplishment to allow for such introspection.

  • DavidR2014

    Doug Messier wrote:

    “Editor’s Note: Two to three years? Only $108 million for vehicles and infrastructure? Three thousands astronauts in the first five years?

    What the hell happened?

    Who did these cost estimates? Were they on drugs?”

    Maybe Elon did the estimates… Just helping out a fellow entrepreneur…

  • DavidR2014

    Doug Messier wrote:

    “How did two to three years turn into 10? How is it possible to spend an entire decade trying to repeat the flight of SpaceShipOne, which itself merely replicated what the X-15 had done 40 years earlier?”

    Doug, to be blunt; if VG had chosen to go with a liquid engine from the start of the SS2 programme, then they likely would have finished in much closer to three years and $108 million. (Obviously SpacePort America would still have been over and above this figure.)

    You will know better than I, but I think that XCOR will take longer than three years to build Lynx, but spend less that $100 million doing it, so the estimates weren’t complete fantasy. Its just that VG put all their eggs in a Hybrid basket, and that basket hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Yet.

  • Vladislaw

    Burt Rutan had stated in an interview that he thought the SS1 was going to be the version to start selling rides. He was not big on the idea of increasing the size to include 8 people.

  • OdiousJack

    They should have sticked to SpaceshipOne. Two to three years of heavy testing including development of a better suited engine. Result: two paying customers two or three times a week. Upscaling only when a regular service is already at hand. Branson’s greed gave way to failure.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’ve heard the opposite from several sources in a position to know.

    Burt had the dream of a much larger ship. And if Branson wasn’t going to fund it, Burt would have gotten someone else to put up the money.

    Virgin Galactic has traditionally taken credit for the larger ship that people could float around in. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, although they probably had some inputs into design. I haven’t heard anyone from Virgin take credit for that recently. Given the delays caused by the inability to scale up the engine for the larger ship, I doubt anyone wants to touch that claim.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’ve heard that the much larger ship was Burt’s idea. Branson — well, him and the Abu Dhabi government — funded Burt’s dream, not the other way around.

  • Vladislaw

    Yes I was aware he wanted to scale up, but I was under the impression in an interview he wanted the SS1 to start the commercial services right away … unless it was just an out for him to say because of the slow progress.

  • Douglas Messier

    Actually, I think we’re both right. There were plans to fly SpaceShipOne additional times with passengers. But, I believe that was a limited schedule — they were maybe thinking of doing it for six months. Proof of concept and it would allow Burt’s friends and Paul Allen’s friends to become space travelers.

    Allen was a bit unnerved by some of the things that happened in flight. And he got an invitation to donate the ship to the Smithsonian. So, out of caution and probably the tax break that comes with a charitable donation, it never flew again after the second X Prize winning flight on Oct. 4, 2004.

  • TimR

    I’d like to see a good investigative story on Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites that puts all the facts and rumors in a row. I don’t subscribe to the Lurio Report. Anyone knows whats been said there? Was Rutan and that chief engineer a case of rats jumping from a sinking ship? 🙂 I wonder if many have canceled their reservations for SS2.

    Btw, how good is that report (though I guess Doug would avoid any critique of a fellow journalist).

  • patb2009

    While there are good reasons to donate a historic aircraft to a museum, it seems it would be simple enough to make Space Ship 1-B models to fly. Perhaps the business model wasn’t good and the desire was to scale up.