Stars in their eyes

The new space race is on… Virgin Galac­tic is get­ting set to rocket a new gen­er­a­tion of tourists into space (at $250,000 a pop), but other com­pa­nies are hot on its heels. Joe Shute gets a glimpse of a fu­ture be­ing built in the Mo­jave desert. Pho­to­graphs by

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

In the new space race, tourists with a spare $250,000 can rocket into or­bit. Joe Shute vis­its Virgin Galatic’s Mo­jave desert HQ

Ont he wall of the Virgin Galac­tic han­gar in Cal­i­for­nia’s Mo­jave Air& Space Port is a no­tice board headed: ‘Fu­ture As­tro­naut Com­mu­nity’. Pinned to it are dozens of Po­laroid pho­to­graphs of some of the 700 peo­ple who have stumped up be­tween $200,000 and $250,000 each to be flown into space at some un­cer­tain point in the fu­ture. Along­side ev­ery photograph is a hand­writ­ten mes­sage. ‘Get me up there, please,’ writes one would-be as­tro­naut. ‘Up, up and away soon – I hope,’ scrawls an­other.

Sir Richard Brans on an­nounced the cre­ation of the world’s first com­mer­cial ‘space­line’ a decade ago. In the han­gar are two ve­hi­cles: Whiteknighttwo, a four-en­gine dual-fuse­lage jet air­craft called VMS Eve (‘VMS’ stands for Virgin Mother Ship), and Space­shiptwo, a smaller winged space­craft in white and sil­ver liv­ery called VSS Unity (‘VSS’ stands for Virgin Space Ship). Em­bossed on the chas­sis are the lo­gos of brand part­ners( in­clud­ing Land Rover) and in­vestor Aabar (an Abu Dhabi-based, state-owned in­vest­ment fund ), as well as, in­evitably, Bran­son’s Galac­tic Girl, a pneu­matic blonde wear­ing a leo­tard and what looks like a gold­fish bowl over her head. This is the fu­ture of space travel, one of­fered by cor­po­ra­tions to us all – for a price.

At some point in the fu­ture, per­haps even next year (though the com­pany has long ex­celled in the art of avoid­ing con­crete dead­lines), the first group of Virgin pas­sen­gers hope to ar­rive at Space­por t Amer­ica in New Mex­ico and un­dergo three days of train­ing be­fore be­ing strapped into

VSS Unity ready for launch. The plan is that VSS Unity will be sus­pended be­low VMS

Eve, which will take off shortly af­ter sun­set and gain an al­ti­tude of ap­prox­i­mately 50,000ft (15,000ft above a typ­i­cal com­mer­cial air­liner). Once at that al­ti­tude, VSS Unity will de­tach from the larger craft and ac­cel­er­ate for a few sec­onds be­fore ig­nit­ing its rocket mo­tor. The six pas­sen­gers on VSS Unity will be thrust back into their seats, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the G-force equiv­a­lent of a corner­ing For­mula 1 car as the space­craft shoots for­ward un­til it breaks the sound bar­rier, then rises steeply up­ward sat about 2,500mph through the at­mos­phere to around 300,000ft. As the cur­va­ture of the earth slips away be­low them, those on board will have four min­utes to un­clip their seat belts and ex­pe­ri­ence true weight­less­ness while con­tem­plat­ing the beck­on­ing si­lence of space.

Af­ter reach­ing peak al­ti­tude of 300,000ft – or 56 miles above the earth – the craft’s ‘feather sys­tem’ will be ac­ti­vated, piv­ot­ing its twin tail booms up­wards at an an­gle of 65 de­grees over the fuse­lage, al­low­ing it to re-enter the at­mos­phere nose first and glide back down to earth. The en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence will last around one hour and 30 min­utes.

On 28 April, 2001, US busi­ness­man Den­nis Tito be­came the first space tourist in history, pay­ing $20 mil­lion to hitch a lift to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion aboard a Rus­sian Soyuz space­craft. To this day, only 559 peo­ple have been into space (and roughly eight of these were space tourists). But the likes of Virgin Galac­tic in­tend to in­crease that num­ber ex­po­nen­tially.

‘It’s like the door has been open a crack for a long time,’ Virgin G al ac­tic’ svi­cep res­i­dent of spe­cial projects, Will

‘Get me up there, please,’ writes one would-be as­tro­naut

Pomer­antz, tells me as he guides me through the han­gar. ‘And we’re here to kick it off its hinges.’

There is a scene near the be­gin­ning of the dystopian 1999 film Fight Club, where Ed­ward Nor­ton’s char­ac­ter con­tem­plates the fu­ture of space travel. ‘When deep space ex­plo­ration ramps up, it will be the cor­po­ra­tions that name ev­eryt hi ng,’ he says. ‘The IBM Stella rsphere, t he Mi­crosof t Gal­axy, Planet Star­bucks.’

That ob­ser­va­tion has proved eerily pre­scient. The world is now in the midst of an un­prece­dented space race in which com­pa­nies, not coun­tries, are lead­ing the charge. Cur­rently three or­gan­i­sa­tions owned by very rich men are vy­ing for po­si­tion at the front: Sir Richard Bran­son’s Virgin Galac­tic, Spacex and Blue Orig in, owned re­spec­tively by the tech bil­lion­aires Elon Musk (t he founder of Pay­pal and Tesla Mo­tors) and Jeff Be­zos (Ama­zon).

Musk wants to save the hu­man race by colonis­ing space and hopes to be­gin run­ning manned mis­sions to Mars as early as 2022. In Fe­bru­ary he re­vealed that two ‘pri­vate cit­i­zens… no­body from Hol­ly­wood’ have paid Spacex undis­closed sums to take them around the moon as early as 2018.

Be­zos, who an­nounced in April that he plans to sell off $1 bil­lion of Ama­zon stock ev­ery year to pump into Blue Ori­gin, also wants to get mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in space. His com­pany is cur­rently de­sign­ing a sub­or­bital space-tourism rocket called the New Shep­ard (af ter the first-ever US as­tro­naut, Alan Shep­ard, though it’s a name that car­ries mes­sianic over­tones), which is a di­rect ri­val to Virgin Galac­tic’s project.

The re­cently ap­pointed pres­i­dent of Virg in Galac­tic is Mike Moses, a 49-year-old veteran of the in­dus­try. Pre­vi­ously he worked for Nasa, where he was launch in­te­gra­tion man­ager for the Space Shut­tle fleet. Af­fa­ble and pas­sion­ate, Moses and his fel­low ex­ec­u­tives sit at cu­bi­cle desks cheek by jowl with their eng in­eers; he is a model em­ployee of Bran­son’s own tie-pho­bic busi­ness brand.

Moses prefers not to use the ‘space race’ tag, say­ing the ri­val firms are all work­ing to­gether to­wards the same goal. St ill, he ad­mits, Virg in Galact ic is a im­ing to be f i rst to mar­ket. He will not say ex­actly how much money has so far been spent, only ‘hun­dreds of mil­lions’.

As we sit to­gether in the shadow of V MS Eve’s el­e­gant, car­bon-sculpted 140f t wing­span, I won­der whether old Nasa types like Moses feel un­easy about now be­ing part of the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of space and boost­ing al­ready plan­et­sized bil­lion­aire egos? He shakes his head fu­ri­ously. ‘I don’t think it’s an ego thing but a con­tri­bu­tion thing,’ he says. ‘It’s about mak­ing a mark on the world. Do you want to be a busi­ness­man with a lot of money or do you want to do some­thing cul­tur­ally and sci­en­tif­i­cally for the planet?’ The in­ject ion of pr ivate capit a l has, he says, been a boost to t he in­dus­try. ‘It’s that same barn­storm­ing men­tal­ity as at the start of the aviation in­dus­try.’

Few ticket-holder names have been pub­licly re­leased by Vi rg i n Galact ic, a lt hough i n March P ro­fes sor Stephen Hawk­ing an­nounced that he had been of­fered a seat by Bran­son and was hop­ing to go. The ac­tor Ashton Kutcher was the 500th cus­tomer, while Kate Winslet was re­port­edly given a ticket by Bran­son as a wed­ding present af­ter mar­ry­ing his nephew Ned Rock­n­roll. Ot her names reg ula rly touted, though not con­firmed by Virgin, in­clude Tom Hanks, Princess Beatrice, Leonardo Di­caprio and An­gelina Jolie.

Rather than fo­cus on oli­garchs chas­ing the next pre­mium ex­pe­ri­ence, Virg in Galac­tic is keen to play up the more hear t-warm­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als of ticket-hold­ers. One un­named women is an Amer­i­can teacher who, af­ter watch­ing Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon in 1969, put be­tween $20 and $200 a month into a sav­ings ac­count in or­der to one day buy a ticket to space. Oth­ers, I’m told, are sim­ply en­thu­si­asts who have begged, bor­rowed and scraped to­gether the money. Virg in Galac­tic’s team in­sists t hey are deser ving of t he ti­tle ‘as­tro­nauts’ rat her than the Fed­eral Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion-ap­proved and some­what less ro­man­tic ‘space-flight par­tic­i­pants’.

The Mo­jave Air & Space Port is a sprawl­ing com­plex of run­ways and hangars, close to a cou­ple of burger bars and rust­ing rail­way sid­ings. Wind tur­bines dot the hills in the dis­tance, shim­mer­ing un­der the end­less desert sky. At the cen­tre of the air­field is a small memo­rial gar­den to those who have lost their lives here over the years.

One plaque bears the name of Michael TA ls bury, a co-pi­lot who on 31 Oc­to­ber, 2014 was killed dur­ing a test flight of the ear­lier prototype of Virgin Galac­tic’s VSS Unity – called VSS En­ter­prise. The space­craft had been re­leased at 46,500f t and had just passed through Mach 1 – roughly 660mph – when the ve­hi­cle sud­denly ex­ploded in the sky. Als­bury, a 39-year-old fa­ther-of-two, was killed in­stantly; co-pi­lot Peter Siebold some­how parachuted to safety.

Bran­son rushed to Mo­jave and later ad­mit­ted that the crash left him ques­tion­ing se­ri­ously for the first time ‘whether it was right to be back­ing the de­vel­op­ment of some­thing that could re­sult in such tragic cir­cum­stances ’. Be­neath a pic­ture of Als­bury on his memo­rial is the Latin motto ‘Ad As­tra per Aspera’ – through hard­ship to the stars.

Als­bury was a pi­lot work­ing for the com­pany Scaled Com­pos­ites, which built VSS En­ter­prise for Virgin, and Bran­son

has since set up a firm called The Space­ship Com­pany to con­struct the cur­rent model and fu­ture ver­sions.

Virgin Galac­tic’s chief pi­lot, Dave Mackay, a 60-year-old from Thurso in Scot­land, was fly­ing Whiteknighttwo the day of the crash. He steered up into the air and, af­ter VSS

En­ter­prise de­tached, banked up and away as he had done count­less times be­fore. ‘Ev­ery­thing was nor­mal,’ he re­calls, ‘right up to the point where it sud­denly wasn’t.’

I first meet Mackay in the flight sim­u­la­tor of the Virg in Galac­tic han­gar, where he is prac­tis­ing glid­ing the space­ship back down to earth. Prior to his ca­reer as a com­mer­cial pi­lot he spent 16 years in the RAF, fly­ing Har­ri­ers and other fighter jets. He later worked for Virgin At­lantic as a pi­lot and when the com­pany an­nounced it was mak­ing in­roads into space, he moved out to the US with his wife, Sue, and two chil­dren.

Mackay did not see the ac­tual space­craft ex­plode be­cause it hap­pened in the blind spot of Whiteknighttwo. Af ter learn­ing on the radio that some­thing had gone wrong he flew around the crash site re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion to mis­sion con­trol be­fore even­tu­ally re­turn­ing to re­fuel.

‘We think about Mike a lot but know he was as driven as any­body to see this project suc­ceed,’ he says. ‘There have been ac­ci­dents all the way through the history of aviation. If you called a halt af­ter the fa­mous names had died be­fore, where would we be to­day?’

As chief pi­lot of a team of seven, Mackay will in all prob­a­bil­ity be the first up into space, al­though the high­est he has been so fa r is 70,000f t, at which point you ca n see t he Earth’s cur­va­ture and the sky al­ready be­gins to darken. A softly spo­ken man, his eyes gleam with an­tic­i­pa­tion. ‘I want to see the planet rush­ing away and com­ing back to­wards me,’ he says. ‘I want to see how thin the at­mos­phere is and the black­ness of space.’

Mike Moses was also present the day of the crash, work­ing as head of op­er­a­tions. At Nasa he had been flight con­troller dur­ing the 2003 Columbia dis­as­ter, when the shut­tle dis­in­te­grated re­turn­ing to earth af­ter tak­ing off from Cape Canaveral 16 days pre­vi­ously. All seven as­tro­nauts on board were killed. Fol­low­ing the Virg in crash, Moses re­calls in­stantly go­ing into re­cov­ery mode, ar­rang­ing sup­port groups among staff and work­ing to es­tab­lish what went wrong.

Even­tua lly it was dis­cov­ered a co-pi lot, Als­bur y, had re­leased the lock on the feather re-en­try sys­tem more than 10 sec­onds too soon, mean­ing the wings smashed up into the fuse­lage – soft­ware now pre­vents this from hap­pen­ing on VSS

Unity, to­gether with a me­chan­i­cal sys­tem to pro­tect against un­lock­ing too soon.

A few pas­sen­gers pulled out fol­low­ing the crash, but Virgin had new book­ings to re­place them the ver y next day. ‘Richard was the first one here show­ing his re­morse but also say­ing this isn’t go­ing to stop us,’ re­mem­bers Ju­lia Tizard, the Lan­cashire-born vice pres­i­dent of Virgin Galac­tic. ‘He vir­tu­ally dou­bled down on mak­ing it hap­pen, which was a big thing to ev­ery­body on the pro­gramme, to know we had his back­ing.’

There are now three arms to Virgin’s at­tempt at space dom­i­na­tion: Galac­tic (space t ravel), The Space­ship Com­pany (de­sig n, man­u­fac­tur­ing and test­ing) and Virg in Or­bit, which launched in March to de­velop rock­ets to send satel­lites into space. Whether space tourism will ever make it to a vi­able money-spin­ner re­mains to be seen: pre­sum­ably, the more peo­ple go up into space, the less keen those who have not been will be to pay such eye-wa­ter­ing sums. Virgin’s satel­lite busi­ness, how­ever, is a far more guar­an­teed busi­ness propo­si­tion.

The past few years have seen a huge wave of ven­ture cap­i­tal be­ing pumped into the space in­dus­try: hedge funds, tech gi­ants, the World Bank, even Coca-cola, which has in­vested in Oneweb, a cus­tomer of Virgin Or­bit, which plans to send up a con­stel­lat ion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites to pro­vide broad­band all over the world. The ultimate plan is to cre­ate a mass mar­ket of rocket launches send­ing all man­ner of satel­lites into or­bit, upon which hu­man­ity will rely for defence, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, nav­i­ga­tion, and count­less other pos­si­bil­i­ties. These will pro­foundly change our lives in ways both ex­treme (map­ping cat­a­strophic weather fronts long be­fore they ar­rive) and more mun­dane – bet­ter traf­fic man­age­ment to get peo­ple home ear­lier from work, for ex­am­ple.

Virgin will launch the rock­ets us­ing the same mid-air sys­tem as its tourism space­craft. The moth­er­ship in this in­stance is Cos­mic Girl, a Boeing 747 mod­i­fied to carry the rocket with a wing­span of 196f t. The ob­vi­ous benef it of us­ing a plane rather than a static launcher is Virgin can travel to wher­ever its cus­tomers re­quire. The plan is to man­u­fac­ture up to 24 rock­ets a year and make them avail­able to those wish­ing to launch satel­lites at a cost of around£9 mil­lion per rocket, or less to re­serve a smaller share of the 660lb pay­load.

Chief en­gi­neer at the Or­bit han­gar in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, is Kevin Sagis, a 51-year-old with a mane of black hair and pierc­ing g rey eyes. He star ted out with Nasa on the Space Shut­tle pro­gramme and has worked on sev­eral of the ve­hi­cles that pi­o­neered the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of space. This, he says, is the most ex­cit­ing mo­ment of his ca­reer. ‘It’s the sense of au­thor­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity. It’s like dog years. One year here is like seven at Nasa.’

Out on the shop floor I watch a 30-some­thing en­gi­neer wan­der past. He is heavy­set, tat­tooed and bearded, and is wear­ing a T-shirt with the slo­gan ‘Space is Virgin ter­ri­tory’.

‘I want to see the planet rush­ing away and then back to­wards me’

Above The cock­pit of VMS Eve (named af­ter Richard Bran­son’s mother), fea­tur­ing Virgin’s Galac­tic Girl sym­bol. Right VSS Unity, the craft in which space tourists will even­tu­ally travel. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left Elon Musk’s Spacex rocket, Fal­con 9, and Dragon space­craft launch in April last year; Virgin Galac­tic’s chief pi­lot Dave Mackay; a close-up of VSS Unity

Above VMS Eve on the tar­mac at the Mo­jave Air & Space Port. Be­low A road sign bears the un­usual la­bel Space­ship Land­ing Way

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