Richard Branson

650 “astronauts-in-waiting,” who have each paid $250,000.00, are looking towards 2014 in anticipation of the first Virgin Galactic flights to suborbital space.  Launching out of New Mexico, each six passenger spacecraft is expected to travel 62-miles from earth – a journey that will take approximately two to three hours.  Richard Branson, the 63 year-old founder of the Virgin Group (which includes an airline, record label and mobile company), and his two grown children, will be the first to make the voyage.

The 2011 shutdown of the U.S. space shuttle program enabled the commercialization of space to begin in earnest.  To date, “space tourism” has been carried out by the Russians.  In fact, Branson was approached by former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, shortly after the roll-out of perestroika in 1986, to see if he wanted to be the first to go up on a Russian spacecraft. Upon discovering what a visit to the international space station would cost and determining that he would have to train in Russia for two-years, Branson decided the time and money would be better spent in building his own spacecraft.  Hence, the Virgin Galactic space travel venture was born.

In the U.S., billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, have also been making inroads into commercializing space.  Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX has successfully launched rockets carrying payloads such as satellites and cargo into space.  Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon launched Blue Origins in 2000.  The company also plans to take private citizens to suborbital space.

Branson is not worried about competition or even about funding.  He has received financial support for Virgin Galactic from Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi.  Their $380M outlay, which represents a share of almost 40% of the venture, could indicate that Abu Dhabi is looking to build a major spaceport.

Galvanizing enough public support could represent his biggest challenge.  Risk factors weigh on the minds of potential customers in light of NASA’s 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters, where all crew members perished.  As with any emerging industry, passenger safety will be crucial to attracting customers and building upon his vision.

Branson believes that in 30 years, if enough spaceships are built, enormous quantities of people will have a chance to go to space.  In the foreseeable future, he expects that Virgin Galactic’s ability to someday transport satellites will allow more citizens on earth to have wireless telephone and Internet access.  He also hopes that his fleet will reduce time of travel between continents.  From there, he envisions deep space exploration, asteroid mining and satellite monitoring of everything from global warming to illegal shipping.  Long-term, he is even looking to build a hotel in space where guests will sleep in plastic pods and star-gaze while orbiting the moon.  But, he realizes that his visions can sound grandiose and that he has a habit of “talking” ahead of himself.  Thus, it will most likely be at least 20 years before he knows whether his fantasy will become reality. Meanwhile, 2014 looms.

Source:  WSJ (11/3/13)


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