Branson Takes One Giant Leap

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).

It’s The Planes, Stupid!

We’re all in favour of saving the planet nowadays, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our lifestyle.

Beautiful, but unnatural
Beautiful, but unnatural

Recycling and Hybrid cars are all the rage, but who wants to give up flying? … anyone?
This is not a widely publicised way of cutting our carbon footprint, mainly because it’s so damn unpopular. Almost as unpopular as population capping. No-one wants to limit their horizons, we all want to see the world, but cutting back on short-haul flights is seen by many as the single most significant thing we can do to save the environment.
According to my tutor Bibi van der Zee, you could live in a mud hut, eating leaves for sustenance, and one flight a year would undermine all that good work. The melting polar-ice caps have led Bibi to contemplate giving up and accepting the inevitable demise of our fragile eco-system.
But one group that refuse to give up are Plane Stupid. This month they stepped up their protests by controversially breaking into Stansted Airport. Eight of the 49 protesters appeared in Harlow Magistrates’ Court today and, by a lucky co-incidence, I was there to see their case get passed on like a hot potato. The case will now go to Chelmsford Magistrates Court after the Harlow Magistrates refused to even deal with the simple criminal matter of trespassing. Clearly they were scared off by the estimated £2.5m in damages quoted by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Regardless of the outcome, you have to admire the audacity of Plane Stupid and their boldness to take action over what they believe in.
At this point, I feel obliged to play my hypocrite card and admit that I am flying to France next month. I love going snowboarding and don’t want to give it up. But, at the rate things are going I may have to start going further afield to find real snow…

A To B Via Claustrophobia

[Originally posted on July 8, 2008]

I am a commuter.

This service is now calling at Chaos, where this train terminates. All change please, all change.
This service is now calling at Chaos, where this train terminates. All change please, all change.

Horrible thing to say, but as of last week, I joined the thousands of Surrey-ites who commute to work in London on South West Trains, and it got me thinking: Is this the future for many of us? Huddled in a corner of a train at 8am, sealed off in your mind from the swathes of business-folk that surround us? Totally closed off from the outside world, focused on your iPod/BlackBerry/Book?
Public transport has certain codes of conduct, and if you break them you run a very high risk of being labeled as a weirdo.

Rule #1:
Absolutely no talking to strangers.
Spontaneous social interaction marks you as either a desperate eccentric trying to make friends on the way to work, or a twisted, potential sex-offender. Heaven forbid that we should interact with each other. Even if you are lucky enough to have a friend in tow, you should keep your conversation to a whisper.

Breaking rule #1 will result in people immediately assuming you are a bit odd.

Rule #2:
Keep physical contact to a minimum.
This is a tricky one given the proximity of your person to complete and utter randomers. Maintaining a polite social veneer whilst being unable to cross your legs without thwacking someone else in the shins, is a challenge. In fact, if you find yourself next to a more portly member of the commuting undead, then this contact rule is basically void. I spend two hours a day so close to complete strangers that I wouldn’t dream of talking to.

Any breach of this rule must be atoned for with an apologetic nod and a mumbled ‘sorry’. This is the only acceptable exception to rule #1.

Rule #3: No noise pollution.
Commuter trains are eeriely quite, mainly due to rule #1. The only noise you will hear is the faint buzz of music from inside someone else’s ear-lobes. Those who try to pump tha noize, are glared at with disdain and mentally labelled as yobs.

So, armed with the above three rules, it shouldn’t be hard fitting in. And it isn’t.
It’s pretty damn depressing tho.

I’m not trying to curry sympathy here, I’m well aware how lucky I am to have a job in such an exciting city, and I could have it much, much worse. But the whole commuting mindset seems to be quite alarming. Is this what we really think of others? Closed off drones who we must respect but never interact with?

My way of combating the commuting depression/claustrophobia/irritation is to try and section off an area of my own. I place my bag on the chair next to me, my blazer on the chair next to that. I hope, upon hope, that this will secure me a disproportionately large area in which to spread my gangly limbs, and recline in the comfort of being a clever commuter. Paranoid that every passing train passenger will try and claim the seat next to me, I develop a sense of bubbling resentment for anyone who throws a glance my way.
Of course they do, and I am obliged by the above etiquette to yield bashfully and cosy up for an intimate journey. Does this make me selfish? Does this make me anti-social? Or is this just the normal development of dealing with the stress of commuting?

At this point I’m obviously becoming far too cynical. This refined atmosphere of mutual respect and acquiescence to the social codes, makes for a quiet atmosphere wherein people can read, listen to music, and even sleep. Maybe everyone needs this type of environment to make the commute bearable.

Maybe some of them even like it. Maybe if I put my mind to it, I could learn to enjoy this.

But maybe it’s just how I get to work.

Now Playing: Million Dead – Smiling At Strangers On Trains