Richard Branson

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (Photo: Flickr user riz94107)


Business maverick Richard Branson hopes to boldly go where others wouldn’t even dream with the launch of his latest venture, Virgin Galactic. Forget what you thought about the cost and carbon footprint of space tourism: by launching their craft, SpaceShipTwo, from a mother-ship cruising at 50,000 ft, Virgin Galactic say they can cut out 90% of the CO2 emissions of a traditional rocket launch and the price per passenger is reduced by a staggering 99%. The result –
space tourism is no longer just for millionaires.

This project is green to the core. Virgin Galactic claims that its two-hour flights, which reach heights of 110km above the earth, will burn just 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – 40% less than the carbon footprint of a London to New York return flight on a commercial jet. Branson has also stated that his New Mexico spaceport will take all its energy requirements from natural, renewable  resources. It has been designed, by Lord Foster of Gherkin fame, to draw on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

James Lovelock, environmentalist doomsayer and author of the Revenge of Gaia, will be one of the first passengers to get a taste of this $200,000 zero-gravity experience and Branson believes a VG flight could change the way the rich and powerful think about the world. “Seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit,” says the bearded one.

The $200,000 price tag may seem prohibitively steep, but it is significantly cheaper than the $20m that the first space tourist Dennis Tito spent on his trip in 2001. Since then, five self-funded space tourists have followed in his footsteps, with Hungarian-American Charles Simonyi currently on his second orbital jaunt.

Virgin Galactic's mother-ship EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)

Virgin Galactic's mothership EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)

But the age of exclusivity characterised by Tito et al is coming to an end. Virgin Galactic is not a far-flung fantasy of the distant future. Work on SpaceShipTwo is well advanced and last month its mother-ship EVE  completed its longest and fastest test flight. All being well, the company should begin commercial operations within the next two years.

Will Whitehorn from Virgin Galactic insists that this project is more than just a millionaire’s plaything: “We have radically changed the economics of getting to space and built the most advanced aviation system the world has ever seen,” he says. “Training only takes three days – within years you could go to space for a week’s holiday.”

Given the state of the environment and the economy, this does all seem a bit frivolous, regardless of the massive savings in cash and carbon. But Whitehorn insists on the importance of investing in such innovation: “Over the past 15 years we have become so reliant on space technology. We could not even feed the population of the earth anymore without satellites to predict weather forecasts for farmers and GPS systems to guide food deliveries  to the stores.”

But can they really be immune to the global recession? Surely VG must be feeling the pinch? Nothing of the sort, according to Whitehorn: “We have seen a massive surge in interest lately. Over 300 reservations have already been made, totalling more than $40 million in deposits.” One thing seems clear, this project certainly has momentum.

Despite Branson’s many successes, or perhaps because of them, Britain has never really warmed to him. Maybe its got something to do with how self-satisfied he always looks, but then again, if you were worth $2.4 billion, you’d be pretty smug too. For those of you who would be glad to see the London-born entrepreneur shot into space and never return, here’s Babylon Zoo’s 1995 electro-rock hit (I couldn’t resist).

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