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 earthâ€™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 Braunâ€™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. Churchillâ€™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 â€“ 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 Virginâ€™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 â€œfeatherâ€ 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.