Point-to-point suborbital space travel is the company's grand plan. But who
When Virgin Galactic finally takes its first tourists to space, it'll just be a a stepping stone to what the company's ultimate mission is: Flying people from one place on Earth to another place on Earth, just like any other airline. Except in this version, you'll travel through space and be able to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo in an hour.
The idea here would be to have a takeoff system somewhat similar to the midair launch the company's SpaceShipTwo has now. A large plane basically "drops" the spacecraft in midair, a hybrid rocket engine ignites, and off into space (and toward your destination) you go.
A system like this would allow you to fly from the West Coat to Japan in an hour or from the United Kingdom to Australia in two hours, Virgin Galactic's CEO, George Whitesides, said last night at a company event at New York City's Museum of Natural History.
"You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing," Whitesides said. "We don't have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that."
If you've been at all following what Virgin has been doing for the last decade, it makes a lot of sense: Virgin's daring, sometimes insane chairman Richard Branson has long had his eyes on a supersonic commercial airline—he tried to buy the Concorde from British Airways more than a decade ago ("they had to cut the wings off to keep from selling to me," Branson said last night).
He's discussed creating a supersonic passenger plane himself, but why settle for an incremental change when, if it works, "point-to-point suborbital space transportation" promises to be a complete paradigm shift?
There are, of course, a lot of things to work out before you can take a day trip from the US to Japan, but it's not a completely crazy idea. In fact, the European Space Agency is researching the idea and said that Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne's (and SpaceShipTwo's) launch mechanisms are the most promising thing it's seen yet.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's blue-sky research arm, DARPA (with the Air Force), and the Marine Corps have been working on developing their own point-to-point rockets for delivering supplies and people for roughly a decade now and the Federal Aviation Administration even put out a rather bullish report in 2010 that noted that the "potential for the rapid global transport of passengers and the fast distribution of goods and services make point-to-point transportation an attractive space technology concept worth exploiting."
If this is technically feasible—Branson and the FAA appear to think it is—the question then becomes who, exactly, will use it?
The Concorde failed for a lot of reasons, not least of which the fact that it was very, very expensive. So far, hundreds of people have shelled out $250,000 to take a quick suborbital spaceflight with Virgin Galactic, but are they going to be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to save 12 hours flying halfway around the world?
"Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published," Derek Webber, executive director of Spaceport Associates, wrote in a 2008 paper exploring the idea. "The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place."
"Price levels are uncertain," he continued. "It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips."
There's plenty of time to figure this out. The technology is in its infancy, and, as going into space becomes easier and perhaps routine, the answers to those questions will become obvious.
Virgin Galactic, it turns out, wasn't a billionaire's vision for a space tourism company—it was Whitesides' vision for the future of airlines themselves.
"It's complicated," he said. "But space, I think, is not only important for the future of transportation. It's also important for the future of imagination."