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
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