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.