A different way of space travel

Last night I heard a fascinating presentation from the President of Virgin Galactic about their plans to sell people a trip into space on their reusable plane and space ship. They are offering the opportunity to people to become astronauts, seeing the beauty of our planet from space and experiencing weightlessness.

The ambition and the simplicity of the project are both stunning. At a time when NASA and the European Space programme still spend huge sums on earth launched rockets, which require very expensive technology and huge amounts of fuel to propel them the first 50,000 feet against gravity and the atmosphere, Virgin proposes taking a smaller and more lightly fuelled rocket and space ship up on a carbon fibre plane, launching it from beneath the plane at 50,000 feet to make the rest of the climb out of the earth’s remaining atmosphere. The result is a project which offers a low launch cost, a small fraction of the launch cost of a conventional rocket after adjusting for the different payloads the official machines can currently handle.

I find this interesting for several reasons. The first is the private sector is now taking on the challenge of space travel, a province that has ever since the 1930s and Wernher Von Braun’s pioneering steps with rockets been government controlled and financed. The second is the private sector is able to handle a project of this complexity with a very small team of people, to a budget that represents a sensible business bet for a reasonable sized company. The third is the private sector has come up with a very different way of solving the complex problems of launching a heavier than air machine and hurling it into space.

It is always difficult for governments to have the vision and the parallel thinking necessary to make major advances. In Second World War Britain, when innovation was at a premium in matters relating to warfare in order both to keep up with the enemy and to try to get ahead, many of the important breakthroughs came from private sector companies taking a chance on small budgets, and in some cases occurred despite official discouragement. The official machine can often develop just one house approach to a problem. Churchill’s scientific adviser, Professor Lindemann, thought it impossible for the Germans to make the V2. When he was shown the first reconnaissance photo of one on the ground he denied it could be a missile, because it was not large enough to hold all the solid fuel he calculated it needed. He could not bring himself to believe that the Germans had mastered liquid fuel technology for such a rocket and could therefore produce a much smaller effective weapon.

It is easy to criticise in retrospect, as we know the answer. Clever, well educated well intentioned people like official scientific advisers can make mistakes, because government can easily be gripped by a single way of looking at a problem, reinforced by its command hierarchy. We all know how difficult sometimes it is to find something for someone else, as we do not often know what we are looking for, as their description misses out the characteristics that our eyes and brain pick up.

That is why it is exciting that generations brought up in the belief that if you want to go further in space or take more payload you just need to build bigger and bigger ground launched rockets with more stages should now see another more fuel efficient , lighter cheaper option – taking the rockets well up on a plane before the final launch into space. It will be interesting to see how long it is before NASA and the European Space Agency look seriously at Virgin’s breakthrough. The Virgin craft comes back to earth, I was told, with less risk than the re-entry of conventional space vehicles, because it reconfigures its shape to “feather” into the atmosphere before converting back to a glider shape to land. Safety as well as a greener way of getting into and out of space is high up the commercial agenda.


  1. Brian Sherwood Jones
    March 28, 2008

    'Twas ever thus. R100 vs. R101. Spitfire vs. Fairy Battle. Complex engineering is safer if not run by politicians. See Neville Shute's 'Slide Rule' on R100vs. R101.

  2. Peter Turner
    March 28, 2008

    There is always more than one way to kill the cat. It is thinking of different ways which is difficult. For large govermental organisations with overbearing bureaucracies it is even more difficult.

  3. Neil Craig
    March 28, 2008

    This is just a dip into space – getting to orbit is the real prize & more difficult but, because of the economic benefits (telecommunication satellites, solar power satellites, manufacturing exotic materials only possible in zero G etc etc) far more valuable.

    The way to do it is by government putting up X-Prizes. This is Dr Jerry Pournelle on the subject:

    "I can solve the space access problem with a few sentences.

    Be it enacted by the Congress of the United States:

    The Treasurer of the United States is directed to pay to the first American owned company (if corporate at least 60% of the shares must be held by American citizens) the following sums for the following accomplishments. No monies shall be paid until the goals specified are accomplished and certified by suitable experts from the National Science Foundation or the National Academy of Science:

    1. The sum of $2 billion to be paid for construction of 3 operational spacecraft which have achieved low earth orbit, returned to earth, and flown to orbit again three times in a period of three weeks.

    2. The sum of $5 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a space station which has been continuously in orbit with at least 5 Americans aboard for a period of not less than three years and one day. The crew need not be the same persons for the entire time, but at no time shall the station be unoccupied….."

    This is a relatively small amount even by UK government standards, particularly since it doesn't cost a penny until success has been achieved.

    I have blogged previously on how to adapt this to Britain & to produce a British spaceport & I hope you don't mind if I push it here:

    Space has a potential for a boom that will make dot.com look small but the first step, as parachutists say, is a big one & this is a point where government support, as with most historic voyages of exploration, is justified.

    Tha ASI have also said similar things & since the US aren't doing anything outside NASA & the Chinese aren't yet doing much the UK could make use of this magnificent opportunity.

  4. Serf
    March 28, 2008

    One doesn't need to look to the heavens to see the incompetence of lareg state organisations versus nimble private projects.

    The cost of most government IT projects has to be orders of magnitude more than what is really necessary. They always insist on reinventing the wheel.

  5. APL
    March 28, 2008

    Technology by government committee:

    The EU Galileo GPS navigation system. It ticks all the boxes…

    1. It is utterly futile, largly replicating existing US GPS system.

    2. It is hugely expensive and growing ever more so.

    3. It is really only a politicians ego trip.

    4. It has got to the stage where politicians have invested so much money and personal prestige in the project, it absolutely must be seen to succeed.

    5. There is really no new or original technology in the project. Given that it has all been developed by the US for GPS.

    6. The public will be forced to use and pay for it (twice – once in taxes, second time in fees for access) if even if they don't wish to or there is a cheaper alternative i.e. the US GPS system.

  6. Jon
    March 28, 2008

    I have the highest regard for Mr Redwood as a politician and thinker and generally agree with almost everything that he writes. But we live in a one culture society (CP Snow) and I regret that Mr Redwood has misunderstood the point in respect of space travel or that which Mr Branston and Nasa are in their different ways trying to do doing very different things.
    This is a great pity and time after time this 2 culture thing re-emerges. No fault of John Redwood's really – science is simply not his thing. Good luck to him and may he serve his country in a new Tory Government soon – please God.


  7. Jon
    March 28, 2008

    I mean a 2 culture society of course.

  8. Bazman
    March 29, 2008

    Does the moon Exist? This is the real question.

  9. Matthew Reynolds
    March 29, 2008

    I think that this shows the private sector is better at producing transport systems than government . What an eloquent defence of free market economics !

  10. Matthew Reynolds
    March 29, 2008

    I think that this shows the private sector is better at producing transport systems than government . What an eloquent defence of free market economics !

  11. Neil Craig
    March 29, 2008

    NASA & Virgin are indeed trying to do very different things. Virgin is trying to make money by developing space, NASA are a jobs creation programme for bureaucrats & the southern states which sometimes does some stuff in space.

    See, for example http://www.physorg.com/news125598958.html
    in which they are threatening to cut the high profile Mars Rover, nominally to save $4 million, out of a budget of $16,000 million but actually as a form of bureaucratic ploy any politician will be familiar with, to extort more money to their budget. This is a sign of how much hardening of the arteries NASA has fallen to.

    If America can afford that every year we could easily afford to promise half as much, once, to fund X-Prizes, particularly since they would only be paid if they achieved far more than NASA has in the last 30 years, indeed over a decade it would only match what we currently spend on ESA for little visible achievement.

    It is worth mentioning that the Virgin Galactic design owes its existence to Burt Rutan launching Spaceship One, which in turn happened only because private individuals put up an X-Prize of $10 million for the first private launch. If $10 million can accomplish that vastly more is clearly possible.

  12. jon byrne
    March 29, 2008

    Virgin and other private groups are doing nothing more than pushing an object up (beyond the dense atmosphere)and allowing it to "fall" down gently.
    An object cannot be placed in space to stay (more than an instant) or to go into orbit.
    It is the French who have made a commercial success and a great deal of money from the Ariane launchers. The UK has a very small footprint in this nominally European (but in reality French) programme.

  13. Neil Craig
    March 30, 2008

    Certainly, as I said initially, Virgin & competitors are a very long way from achieving orbit.

    However if they were getting rather closer to the $1,600 million NASA gets annually rather than the one off X-prize of $10 million the effect would be spectacular. I don't think Ariane can be held up as an example of "commercial success" since the budget for ESA is 3 billion Euros (1/4 NASA's & if one also includes the "independent" French & German space programmes it would be 1/2), & there is no prospect of them declaring a dividend. They have yet to achieve even Virgin's level of progress in getting a man into space.

    ESA is a bureaucratic monstrosity , even worse than NASA & the money spent on it could be used, as I have described, so very much better.

  14. Neil Craig
    March 30, 2008

    Er that should be $16,000 million NASA annual budget.

  15. […] And finally, John “The Vulcan” Redwood shares his views on space travel. […]

  16. Adrian Windisch
    April 1, 2008

    Greener space travel, just marvelous. Put it on hold till we really have sorted the current emission and fuel crisis. Perhaps launching unmanned flights where necessary which are much lighter and less costly.

    Actually NASA use lots of private contractors, little is state owned.

    A more pressing question might be why do countries like China and India launch space missions, prestige more than science. They want to be ahead of the USA, when the USA is not the model modern country it once seemed.

  17. Neil Craig
    April 2, 2008

    Doubtless the Greens would also wish to put Christopher Columbus' journey on hold until all problems in Europe get solved.

    The space programme has paid for itself many times over, even at the outrageous cost NASA produce.

    Without it we wouldn't have telecommunication satellites & thus world markets, a world internet or worldwide news pictures. We would still have weather reports that were largely guesswork without satellite pictures which means that hurricanes would still be mass killers. We also wouldn't have these beautiful pictures of Earth in space that the "environmentalist" movement have used so profitably.

    The Chinese & Russians both understand this & are opposed to the Luddism so much of our own political class wallows in.

  18. Vanessa
    April 17, 2008

    There's an exciting future ahead of us in the realm of commercial space travel. The world was amazed when men landed up in moon. Since then space exploration has gone a long way. And till now it was looked upon with a scientific approach. But now things have changed. Where there's demand there's supply. Scientists running short of money realised that they can lure the rich and the famous to part with their millions for a short trip above the clouds. That idea has gone viral. A lot of people have signed up even before the project has been launched.

    Vanessa @ Future of Commercial Space Travel – Predictions, Companies, Technologies

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