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Branson Envisions 20 SpaceShipTwos; Brian Cox’s Space Race Doc Prepares to Drop

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
August 28, 2017
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Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Sunday Times of London has an update on Virgin Galactic that seems to be based around an upcoming Brian Cox documentary on space tourism, which is set to air early next month in Britain.

Branson could be first in the mass tourism market despite a disastrous 2014 test flight in which a pilot died. Unity is to start rocket tests this autumn, and two more craft are under construction.

“We are hoping to be into space by the end of the year,” said Branson, who has spent £450m on the project. “The cost has been a lot more than we thought . . . but we can see the price falling and we could have 20 spaceships operating so that . . . enormous numbers of people could go into space.”

Twenty SpaceShipTwos? Huh. That’s uh…interesting.  But, is it realistic?  Or another flight of fancy?

Whatever. Before they get to 20, they need to focus on getting one ship, Unity, into powered flights as the 13th anniversary of Branson’s announcement of the SpaceShipTwo program nears at the end of September.  Then into space. Then repeatedly into space. Then into space with paying customers.

In other words, Branson’s getting waaay ahead of himself. Again. Good to see things are back to normal.

The £450 million figure is interesting. That would equate at current exchange rates to $537.2 million dollars. (The pound has fallen quite a bit against the dollar in recent years.) Yet, I distinctly remember reading right after the SpaceShipTwo accident three years ago that Virgin had already spent $600 million into the company at that point. (I’ll see if I can find the reference.)

Perhaps that number is for the SpaceShipTwo program and doesn’t include LauncherOne, which has been split off under a separate company, Virgin Orbit. We do know that Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, aabar Investments, invested $390 million for 37.6 percent of Virgin Galactic.

Meanwhile, Cox’s documentary, The 21st Century Race for Space,  is set to air on BBC Two on Tuesday, Sept. 5 at 9 pm. He apparently has some tough competition from Lisa Riley’s Baggy Body Club on ITV, Celebrity Island With Bear Grylls on Channel 4, Inside Balmoral on Channel 5, and someone named Doctor Foster with serious marital problems over on BBC One.

In addition to watching a SpaceShipTwo glide flight with Branson here in Mojave back in February, Cox also visited Elon Musk’s SpaceX down in Hawthorne and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin up in Seattle.

Cox told the Sunday Times that his visit to Mojave had won him over on suborbital space tourism, a business that has produced more hype and more casualties (four) than actual human spaceflights (zero) over the past 13 years.

Even Cox, a sceptic on space tourism, is inspired to boldly go where no television presenter has gone before. “I thought tourist trips would not be interesting because they are so short and costly, but in Virgin Galactic’s simulator there is a moment when the craft rolls and Earth comes in view,” Cox said. “Experiencing that for real would be life-changing.”

Cox is spinning a bit. In a promotional video that Virgin Galactic posted — and later removed — from YouTube, he told Virgin Galactic employees a different story. (The video was re-posted by another YouTube user here.)

“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said with Branson seated beside him. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”

That might not be worst way to decide to risk one’s life on an unproven spaceship, but it’s pretty damned close. But, it pinpoints the problem with these vehicles; they look cool and promise a fabulous ride, but it’s a mistake to ever forget the substantial risks involved.

These are first generation space tourism vehicles that Burt Rutan — whose company developed SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo — said would have reliability similar to early airliners of the 1920’s and 1930’s. I’ve looked at those numbers, and they’re not pretty.

The documentary is produced by Sundog Pictures, a company headed up by — wait for it — Richard Branson’s son, Sam. Why the BBC would have commissioned a commercial space documentary from a company headed by someone with a vested interest in the industry is beyond me. It’s like…what exactly were they thinking?

It seems likely that between Cox’s unbridled enthusiasm and Branson the Younger’s material interest in Virgin Galactic’s success, the documentary won’t probe very deeply into the dangers of suborbital flight, the realism of Musk’s vision to colonize Mars, or what it would really cost to establish Bezos’ cislunar economy.

That would be unfortunately. The last thing we need in this industry is more cheerleaders. That’s especially true in suborbital space tourism. There’s been far too much hype and cheerleader over the years and not enough reality.

Now that Bezos, Branson or both are likely to launch people into suborbital space in the next year, it’s time to get real not only about the life-changing experience of seeing the Earth from space but the possibility that it might be the last thing some people see.

I hope I’m wrong about this program.  Cox and the BBC have such a great platform to really inform people about what lies ahead. If the documentary proves to be just another promotional piece that skims the surface and avoids the tough questions, then the opportunity will have been wasted.





5 responses to “Branson Envisions 20 SpaceShipTwos; Brian Cox’s Space Race Doc Prepares to Drop”

  1. Rob Frize says:

    Will licensing vs. certification, liability shields or ‘informed consent’ get mentioned I wonder?

  2. Dave Salt says:

    I’m always intrigued when people mention how much has been ‘invested’ in Virgin Galactic because I’d like to know how much of it is Branson’s own cash. Sure, money invested by the Virgin group could be thought of as Branson’s but I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. My feeling is that although people equate Branson with Musk and Bezos, the amount of ’personal wealth’ he’s put into space ventures is at least an order of magnitude less than the others… and its effectiveness is even smaller.

    As for Cox and the BBC, I no longer hold much respect for their journalistic integrity, especially when ‘fashionable’ subjects are involved. Also, as they seem to regard Branson as a prime example of the modern British entrepreneur, I doubt they’ll be inclined to discuss the considerable negative aspects of his venture into space tourism. Nevertheless, I’d really like to be proved wrong.

  3. ThomasLMatula says:

    It’s a little early for April Fool’s Day, but still a good laugh 🙂

    As for the funds that have been spent, hey, what’s an error of a $100 million or when you are just throwing numbers around to impress folks?

  4. Jak says:

    “Branson could be first in the mass tourism market” but highly unlikely. I don’t see them flying paying guests till at least 2019 at the pace they are going. BO has been quiet but once they start flying again I think they will zip along.

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