How Virgin Galactic will make space tourists of us all

20 Nov 2008

Catching a plane to London, Paris or Rome is effortless, affordable and, more significantly, quite routine, but it is all too easy to forget that commercial flying did not become possible until many years after the Wright brothers took to the air in 1903. Now imagine the task of commercialising space travel.

Stephen Attenborough, who was in Dublin recently for Science Week Ireland 2008, became the first full-time employee of Virgin Galactic in 2004, and his job as commercial director is to make space tourism a reality through Richard Branson’s brainchild – the world’s first-ever ‘spaceline’.

“The commercial viability was what I was brought in to work on, and our first job was to find a market for what we believed was going to be a fabulous product – it was technology we knew had worked because SpaceShipOne as a prototype had worked in 2004, and we believed we could operate it safely.

“Obviously, this requires people willing to be early adopters. My job was to go out and identify this first market and get them to sign up early, and space tourism was the obvious choice.

“Richard Branson is very intuitive about these things and wanted to go to space for years. His mother told him in the Sixties that he would probably be going to space by 1980. It didn’t happen. And he felt frustrated about that.”

Attenborough says Branson thought that if he was feeling frustrated, then he reckoned there were plenty of others feeling the same way, and this is where the idea for Virgin Galactic came from.

“We set up a website explaining what we were going to do and how the technology worked, and we sat back and waited.”

Branson and his team were inundated with tens of thousands of registrations in a short period of time; the appetite for space tourism had been well and truly whetted.

Sometime in 2010, after 12-18 months of test flights, a group of lucky (and wealthy) individuals will board SpaceShipTwo, and about 360,000 ft later will experience zero gravity and an amazing view for a few minutes, before being brought back down to earth.

Each trip takes six passengers only, along with two pilots. The first flight will include Richard Branson and his children.

With a hefty deposit of $20,000 per ticket, and a grand total of $200,000, the memories may be priceless, but the first commercial space flights are certainly pricey. As with all new technologies, Attenborough says this is something that will become more affordable in the years to come.

“Saying when is a difficult question to answer with any degree of accuracy, but what we do know is that we will be able to bring our prices down as soon as we have paid off the costs of the development project.”

This is funded entirely by Virgin itself, and will run into $300–350m by the time the first passengers make it to space.

“Fortunately, there were quite a few who could afford this initial ticket price, so we signed them up. To date, 300 people have paid for their tickets up front, and without these pioneers we would never have been able to realise the importance of transforming access to space,” says Attenborough.

One of these pioneers, he points out, is Bill Cullen, businessman and host of the Irish version of The Apprentice.

Another thing Attenborough points out is that competition drives prices down, and right now Virgin Galactic has no competitors to speak of. However, his expectation is that ticket prices may fall to $50,000 or less going forward – expensive, but maybe a price people would be willing to pay for a trip of a lifetime.

According to Attenborough, the process of commercialising space travel was helped by looking at and understanding the history of commercial aviation: “There are a lot of parallels: the people who took those first scheduled flights for fairly short hops across the US were very, very wealthy, and the only ones who could afford those flights.

“Before the 747 came on the scene, even flights from Sydney to London had ticket prices that were about the same as the price of a terraced house at the time.”

As those people could afford these early flights, it opened up the industry for everyone else.

In case you were wondering how long it takes to get to space and back, it’s two and a half hours, but you do get a few minutes to float freely and take in the view.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Stephen Attenborough, who made Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic a reality