It’s been 10 months since the fatal crash of Virgin’s Spaceship 2, in which pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and now Virgin have indicated their focus will be on the small satellite market rather than manned flight. Is this unexpected, or does it begin to grow the odd feeling that commercial spaceflight is just harder than everyone though and isn’t going to happen? When Virgin boss George Whitesides was asked when they would be flying passengers into space his answer is reported to be
“It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” says Whitesides. “I’m hesitant to give specifics on a range of time.”
Virgin are part of the huge OneWeb deal that we’d discussed previously, and although they don’t yet have a vehicle for putting satellites into orbit, this is going to be their focus now. How do they have the credibility to win such a contract with now record of doing this already, or even the craft with which to carry out such operations? Well, having a former NASA chief of staff as heading it up in the form of George Whitesides isn’t going to hurt.
AC Charania, director of strategy and business development at Virgin Galactic, is bullish with his pitch to the visitors: “We are the Uber of small launch,” he claims.
On established national launch ranges, such as Cape Canaveral or the Vandenberg Air Force Base, small satellite, cubesat and pocketqube customers are secondary customers – they find out when a rocket is launching with a major project and send up their satellites – sometimes as light as a single kilogram – alongside the main mission.
“You can’t tell the big rocket where to go and you can’t tell it when to go,” says Charania. “You essentially have to get on a bus.
“With Uber, you go when you want to go, you pick the service you want – UberX or UberXL, it goes exactly where you want and it’s an easy transaction. That’s essentially the model for us.”
This programme is called LauncherOne, a two-stage rocket that is fired at an altitude of 50,000 feet from White Knight Two – the same cargo plane that will be used to shuttle space tourists into near-space. For less than $10m, you can launch a single satellite or combination of satellites with varying payloads into orbit.
This service compares to Pegasus, Virgin Galactic’s rival in the satellite launch market. “Nasa is the only real customer for Pegasus,” claims Whitesides. “It typically buys a Pegasus once every two years at a price of around $50m for a payload in the order of magnitude of 250kg. We offer the same payload at a fifth of the cost.”
So is it all about money? You bet, its certainly a factor, satellites are a growing market, with a planet hungry for ever more satellite applications, but it’s not like there isn’t money in their primary task. Before the crash in November last year, there were around 750 “future astronauts” signed up to Virgin Galactic’s space programme, paying $250,000 (£160,000) a pop for a seat on a spacecraft – SpaceShipTwo – that can reach the edge of space at an altitude of 62 miles before returning to earth.
Numbers have already fallen to 700. These steadfast customers, believed to include high-profile ticket holders Ashton Kutcher, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and Stephen Hawking, represent $175m in revenue.
Space is hard, but it feels like some things are forever just over the horizon…
Rob Adlard, originally for Spaceflightuk.com