Branson: Virgin Galactic Leading the Way in Clean Spaceflight

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is once again talking up how clean his space program is despite all objective evidence to the contrary.

“We are doing everything we can to try to work towards turning the world into a place that’s run by clean energy, not dirty energy. We’ve managed to reduce the amount of energy, of carbon output, to get somebody into space … to less than a round-trip, economy class, from London to New York,” he said.

“I suspect, in two to three years, we’ll not be using any carbon output at all for our space programme. All I can say is that we would not want a space programme if we thought it was in any way damaging [to the environment]. We believe space can play a major part in helping the world we live in and getting on top of climate change,” he said.

“I promise you that we will not allow people to feel guilty travelling with us. We will show them we can pioneer clean energy.”

OK, let’s take this one piece at a time.

“We are doing everything we can to try to work towards turning the world into a place that’s run by clean energy, not dirty energy.”

The last anyone heard, Virgin Galactic was moving from SpaceShipTwo burning nylon (plastic) in the upper atmosphere back to burning rubber there. That’s not especially clean. When lit, the exhaust from the rubber engine makes SpaceShipTwo look like a flying tire fire.

Both hybrid engines use nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. The process of producing nitrous oxide creates an enormous amount of carbon. It’s a pretty good guess that carbon is not included in Virgin’s calculations of the carbon footprint of a SpaceShipTwo flight.

“We’ve managed to reduce the amount of energy, of carbon output, to get somebody into space…”

This is true in that a suborbital flight only uses about 3 percent of the energy required to place a spacecraft in orbit.  By that same token, the Staten Island Ferry uses far less energy getting commuters to Manhattan than the three massive cruise ships that Branson is building will use getting vacationers from Miami to the Bahamas. An apples and peanuts comparison.

By the way, why is someone who so passionate about protecting the oceans and the world becoming carbon neutral by 2050 entering the cruise ship business anyway? How are we supposed to become carbon neutral if Branson keeps adding to the problem?

 “…to less than a round-trip, economy class, from London to New York”

Branson used to say the carbon output would be roughly equivalent to a first class round trip seat from London to New York. But, whatever. Since Virgin Galactic has never released its calculations for public scrutiny, for all we know this is something the marketing department came up with.

“I suspect, in two to three years, we’ll not be using any carbon output at all for our space programme.”

This is intriguing. Could it be that Virgin is thinking of switching from the hybrid to a liquid bi-propellant engine for some future version of SpaceShipTwo? That could reduce the carbon footprint, but you would still have WhiteKnightTwo spewing out carbon to get the spaceship to launch altitude.

Or maybe they will just fly out its current passenger list and then retire SpaceShipTwo. That would leave Virgin Galactic to launch small satellites from a massive 747 jumbo jet, which would still produce a lot of carbon. So it’s not clear how any of this is supposed to work.

In any case, Branson’s modus operandi is to make astounding claims and count on no one challenging him or remembering what he said later on when reality sets in. The author of the story, The Indepedent’s Steve Connor, certainly accepted Sir Richard’s dodgy environmental claims without question.  And he’s the newspaper’s science editor, for chrissake! Seriously, bro…what he’s saying makes no sense.

“All I can say is that we would not want a space programme if we thought it was in any way damaging [to the environment]. We believe space can play a major part in helping the world we live in and getting on top of climate change,” he said.

Dude, your spaceship will be burning rubber in the upper atmosphere where the particulate matter will remain for many years. You don’t think this will damage the environment in any way?

“I promise you that we will not allow people to feel guilty travelling with us. We will show them we can pioneer clean energy.”

Yeah. Since Branson doesn’t seem to experience any guilt making claims that make little sense, his passengers shouldn’t feel any, either.

In the interview, Branson also talks about the environmental benefits of hypersonic point-to-point passenger travel through suborbital space that he hopes Virgin will one day offer. He believes these vehicles will burn far less fuel and that the fuel will be cleaner than what is presently used in air fleets.

Branson also talks about Virgin Galactic’s desire to fly from Britain’s first spaceport. Government officials are now weighing bids from multiple airports in order to designate one of them as a spaceport.

  • windbourne

    It is a nice thought, BUT, all Chinese gov is doing is move coal plants to the far west, and then transmitting it. They were going to convert coal => methane, but are having problems because they did not steal all of the tech from New Great Point Energy (but thought that they had; kind of like CHina stealing capacitor tech from America and Japan, but actually were fed the old KNOWN caps that were KNOWN to fail ).