The Final Frontier

With space tourism rapidly garnering quite a fan base, Clayton Vallabhan speaks with George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, on how the company will take the first visitors into space and what this means for the future of space tourism, point-to-point transportation and more economical small satellite launches

As a generation that grew up watching the iconic Star Trek, where Captain Kirk and Commander Spock commandeered the USS Enterprise into strange worlds light years away from our own, it is only natural for us to want that to someday become a reality. Fortunately, not only did the chunky tablets they used become the iPads of today, but Virgin Galactic has made that dream of being on the Starship Enterprise into a reality in our lifetime. The company intends to begin commercial operations within a few months, the first to take the common man on a trip to space. The very first space tourists, if you will. With this stellar first step, the future indeed seems limitless.

George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic, says he has always been interested in space and had a burning desire to go there. This is probably why he pursued a career with NASA, where he eventually became Chief of Staff. Whitesides first became aware of Galactic during its early beginnings, when his wife put down a deposit on two tickets to become some of the first customers to fly into space with them. Little did he know that life would take him on to head that very company.

“I always felt, and I still do now, that if there’s anyone that can pull this off it has to be Richard Branson and also Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi, UAE. The combination of those two is a very formidable team. They have the resources, the brand experience, the marketing expertise and the operational know-how of Virgin Group. Moreover just the idea that this is a hard thing to do, and knowing this will be the team that can do it, made me decide to come over,” says Whitesides.

He anticipates that Virgin Galactic will go into space around the end of the year, and then go into commercial operations as soon as it can after that. “We are still in testing and the primary concern is safety; and if that means we need to check something or fix something, then we will do that before we go on to the next flight test milestone.”

“We have a three-part business model. The first is to fly people into space, using our SpaceShipTwo vehicle; the second is to fly science experiments into space, again using our SpaceShipTwo vehicle; and the third is to orbit small satellites into space, using our LauncherOne launch vehicle. We think of these as a distinct but related market, and each a good market in itself.”

Virgin Galactic is dedicated to dramatically reducing the price of getting to space. With Launcher One, the company is building and will operate a new vehicle designed to give satellite operators a radically better option for carrying their small satellites into orbit. By using much of the same infrastructure originally created to support SpaceShipTwo — in particular, the high-performance mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo — it can keep prices low while accommodating customer needs for launch availability and flexibility. It’s a winning combination, and Virgin is thrilled to bring it to market.

At its heart, LauncherOne is a two-stage rocket that will be flown to an altitude of 50,000 feet with carrier aircraft. It will then be released and ignite its rocket, taking it into space. LauncherOne is designed for the small satellite segment, on the order of 250kg.

Whitesides says: “We really think that the movement to smaller and more compact form factors, while still having substantial capability, will be a big trend over the next ten years in the world of satellite. Whether it’s communications, remote sensing, weather and all other different applications. LauncherOne will be really well suited to that application and we think it’s going to become a very big part of our overall business base.

“What we’ve done so far is sign letters of intent with deposits with various entities. They are great companies that have expressed a strong desire to fly with us, and we’re now starting to talk to them about contracts, because we are hoping to do our first commercial launch in 2016.”

SpaceShipTwo is designed to hold eight people – two pilots and six passengers. Whitesides says different customers can choose different seating loads or different seating arrangements. SpaceShipTwo is built with an all carbon-composite air-frame that uses a rocket motor to blast off into space. The vehicle is 60 feet long with a 90-inch diameter cabin, similar in size to a Falcon 900 executive jet, albeit with no floor dissecting the cabin, thus allowing maximum room for space tourists to float in zero gravity. Each passenger also gets two dedicated large windows – one side window and one overhead.

The vehicle is air-launched. A carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which uses traditional aircraft technology, takes the vehicle up to approximately 50,000 feet, and then the vehicle is released. At this point, the rocket motor turns on and the ship goes up into space.

“We utilise direct communication between the ground and the spaceship for our telemetry and communications. We currently don’t have a spaceship to space link as that’s not required. What we do have is an antenna that is very similar to that which would be normally be used for communications with a satellite. We use this antenna to communicate with the spaceship and stream telemetry while it’s in space. We also use GPS and other forms of inertial navigation to guide the vehicle and to get a sense of the guidance profile and trajectory.

“A lot of what we’re doing has never been done before, but we’re building on technology in vehicles that have accomplished this goal. More specifically, it takes cues from SpaceShipOne, which was the first private spaceship to do a sub-orbital trajectory in 2004. It won the X-Prize award, and that vehicle was important because it demonstrated to us that a relatively small team could carry off a successful space programme. It’s this same team that we contracted to execute the SpaceShipTwo programme,” says Whitesides.

Scaled Composites built the first set of SpaceShipTwo vehicles for Virgin Galactic, as well as the SpaceShipOne vehicles. The company is a well-known aerospace designer and builder in the United States, owned by Northrop Grumman and based in Mojave, California.

Virgin Galactic has also set up its own manufacturing operation in Mojave, The Spaceship Company. The facility is designed to build additional copies of the first set of vehicles delivered by Scaled Composites. According to Whitesides, the facility is half-done with building the second spaceship, and has made progress on the second carrier aircraft too, thus soon creating a fleet of two sets of vehicles.

“The challenges are, as you would imagine, properly building and testing the vehicle, designing it and designing the rocket motor properly. All of these things have not been easy, but what I think is exciting is that we’re nearly at the end of the test flight programme. A lot of work has happened over the past years, but we’re through a vast majority of the toughest parts now, and we’re spending a lot of time trying to think about how we can deliver our commercial service.”

When quizzed about how space tourism will impact the people who experience the magnificence of space and get to look down on their planet from above, Whitesides says it will change them forever.

“It has been scientifically documented that people who go into space come back with a changed perspective on the world, humanity and what they want to do with the rest of their life. Now that does not happen to every single person, but it does for a strong majority of people. This has been dubbed the ‘overview effect’, which is this process people experience when they go into space and have this transformative moment, where for the first time they look down on their planet from the outside. It’s a profound experience, according to the astronauts who have gone through it.

“We think that, interestingly, many of the biggest problems facing humanity today are planetary in scale. That is to say they are not specific to one neighbourhood, city or even one country. They are problems that we all must face together. So we think that by having dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of people go through that planetary shift, it will be important to the future of the world as they come back to Earth and share with their friends, and leaders in their communities. That will have a profound impact on the world. This is a very philosophical or altruistic view. I would say on another level, with a pragmatic view, the technologies that we will be demonstrating are many of the technologies that could be used for very high speed, point-to-point travel on the Earth’s surface, around the Earth. That will also have a very different but also profound impact on the world, where you can get from one side of the planet to another, within a few hours,” explains Whitesides.

Challenges of Space Tourism

Whitesides says the number one challenge “is that we’re putting people through a high-energy trajectory and so we have to ensure that the vehicle itself is as safe as possible. Also important is that we will be putting a different kind of person through that trajectory. Historically, only astronauts and test pilots have gone through that kind of experience, and so what we’re doing is taking a lot of effort with our medical staff and our training staff to make sure that the people who are going along on that experience will be able to experience space both safely and enjoyably.”

Virgin Galactic has put some of its customers through a simulated space flight experience where they encounter a high-G environment in a centrifuge. Findings showed that the vast majority of people are healthy enough to go into space.

“More than 95% of people seem to be fine to go through this trajectory. Really, it’s only people with really serious health problems who probably shouldn’t be doing much of anything, that would have issues. The vast majority of people can do this, and do it safely. We now have a lot of evidence towards that from our testing programme,” says Whitesides.

The next biggest challenge is to make sure that customers are properly prepared for the flight, and so that entails not just higher G loads, but also micro-gravity flights where they experience the pace of weightlessness. This allows customers to get a sense of what it’s like and how to move around in a weightless environment.

“We also want to give them the kind of sensation of the kind of flight trajectory they will be on. We want to put them in a simulator so that they can understand how the flight goes. We also want to teach them about the vehicles so that they know basic procedures, entrance and exit, etc. Most importantly, we want them to be trained so that as they go through their space experience and when they actually are in space, they’re really getting the most that they can out of it. I think that’s crucial because what we want is for people to feel ready, so when they get there they

are really able to soak it in, and have the most retention from their experience,” adds Whitesides.

Every customer flying with Virgin Galactic will have to go through three days of training when they arrive at the spaceport in New Mexico – that’s when the company will make sure that every customer has all the prerequisites for flight. They also offer optional extra training to customers before they come to the spaceport.

A flight into space on Virgin Galactic costs $250,000. A tidy sum for most people, but Whitesides explains that Virgin Galactic is actually quite economical.

“When Virgin Galactic was announced, and as is the case today, there’s no other space product in a comparable price range. Our current product is $250,000 and even though it is a lot of money, it’s a radically low price for a flight to space. The only other way to buy a flight to space is through the Russians, and currently they charge NASA about $70 million per seat on board the Soyuz vehicle to fly to space. When you think of that compared to $250,000, you’re talking about a factor of almost 300. It’s a huge difference. We’re not just bringing down the price of space flight by a factor of two or 10, it’s 300 times cheaper.”

The company’s maiden commercial flight will have Richard Branson on board, along with some of his family members. Whitesides describes the imminent flight as “a remarkable and historic event”.

The trickiest part of returning to Earth is usually re-entry. Memories are still fresh of the disastrous burn-up of space shuttle Columbia during re-entry in 2003. How can Virgin Galactic assure its customers that they don’t face a similar fate? Whitesides quells these fears by explaining how SpaceShipTwo will be nowhere near those speeds, and how it has a trick or two up its sleeve with stable aerodynamics.

“We are using a patented re-entry design that we believe dramatically de-risks re-entry, or less than what it has been in the past. First of all we’re going slower, using a patented mechanism called the ‘feather’, in which the rear wings of the vehicle fold up to a 60-degree angle, and what that does is it configures the vehicle in a stable aerodynamic form, so that it can only re-enter in that direction.

“If you’ve ever played the game of badminton, once you hit the shuttlecock it always comes downwards with the rubber ball facing down, and the feathers up. The reason for that is that it’s a stable aerodynamic configuration, and this is remarkable similar to what we’re talking about with the vehicle, which has stable configurations. The vehicle will always re-enter bottom-down, and it will always have a much more stable re-entry than potentially other vehicles, with a trickier trajectory,” says Whitesides.

The Future

Virgin Galactic currently employs about 400 staff from all over the world. The vast majority are US citizens, but there are also personnel from Australia, the UK, New Zealand and elsewhere. Whitesides explains that Virgin Galactic relies on personnel from space agencies and the US military. It also hires staff from the civil aviation community, on both the operator and manufacturing sides. Where necessary it has also brought in experience from outside the aerospace world. Some of the people working on the seats have worked in the automotive environment. “We’ve used some of the knowledge they’ve built up in their lives to apply to some of the challenges we are working on with the customer seats. We have a very diverse talent pool at Virgin Galactic.”

Speaking about the Middle East, Whitesides says: “The region is a very important aspect for our company, most of all because of our partnership with our shareholder Aabar. Aabar has been a strong partner, not just in the shareholding sense, but also contributing good information to how we run the company, and operations. I’ve gotten to know Abu Dhabi and the UAE because of my frequent journeys over there, and I think we look forward to how we can some day bring the vehicles to that part of the world, which I think would be a very exciting and invigorating thing for the region.”

In conclusion, Whitesides says: “I think what we have next on our plate is just to execute our current business plan, which is beginning commercial operations for SpaceShip and LauncherOne. However, once we’ve done that it opens up a realm of even more exciting areas, including point-to-point transportation and other possibilities, all of which we would love to do. We need to get started, and that’s what we’re going to do soon, then I think there’ll be a universe of possibilities for the future.”