Virgin Galactic is starting off sending a small group of billionaires into space, which is pretty cool… if you’re a billionaire. But the startup’s (yes, it’s a startup, even with Richard Branson at the helm) Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough took the stage at Wired 2013 in London today to talk a bit more about what the space travel company wants to do beyond billionaires. Hint: It could save the cruise business.
In the near term, Virgin Galactic wants to do its star tourist thing, to be sure, but it has also already signed up NASA as the first client for space science missions, and there’s a chance to launch satellites into orbit in the same way that they launch aircraft (which is by piggy-backing on a weird dual-fuselage jet called the White Knight, instead of riding a barely controlled explosion). But there’s also opportunity in world travel, once economies of scale come into play and the cost of running these flights goes down.
That means something like the Concorde – the famous high-speed, high altitude jet that was retired in 2003 after a crash in 2000 led to a downturn in consumer confidence – could arise from Virgin Galactic, but one that takes the concept of flying high in the atmosphere to take advantage of lower air resistance to its natural conclusion. A passenger liner based on the Virgin Galactic model of manned spaceflight would allow aircraft to leave earth’s atmosphere, which makes travel far more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and far, far faster. Travel time from London to Sydney, for instance, would take around two or two-and-a-half hours.
Beyond even that, there’s a desire to build cruise ships that could operate as orbital hotels, taking people up for longer stretches, and even potentially allowing for tourist voyages to the moon and back. This seems completely impossible now (it’s almost identical to a plot element from The Fifth Element), but Virgin Galactic is pursuing this as a very real long-term goal.
Of course, Virgin Galactic hasn’t managed to launch even one of its incredibly expensive passenger flights yet, even though it’s been doing very well with test launches. That should change soon, however – Attenborough says that the technical risks have all been pretty much ironed out of the program, and anticipates that the first commercial passenger flight should go up beyond the ether sometime within the next year.