RICHARD 8RANSON Vir gin Galac­tic

The Show­man

Indonesia Tatler - - Features -

Net worth: US$5.1 bil­lion, ac­crued across Bran­son’s con­glom­er­ate of Virgin busi­nesses.

Mis­sion: Subor­bital space tourism. Bran­son wants to take pay­ing cus­tomers to the edge of space and back on rocket-pow­ered space planes. For the price of US$250,000, trav­ellers would be taken as far as the Kar­man line, which lies 100 kilo­me­tres above the Earth’s sur­face and con­sti­tutes the bound­ary be­tween its at­mos­phere and outer space. The trip there should take just 63 sec­onds, Bran­son pre­dicts, and pas­sen­gers are promised a few min­utes of weight­less­ness as well as glimpses of the edge of the Earth against the black­ness of space. His space­ships will also of­fer the re­search com­mu­nity a plat­form for space-based sci­ence. All th­ese goals come un­der Bran­son’s over­ar­ch­ing ob­jec­tive of “democratis­ing space.”

How it works: The com­pany’s Space­shiptwo sys­tem con­sists of a car­rier air­craft and a pas­sen­ger space­ship. The first Virgin Galac­tic space­ship to en­ter ser­vice is the Space­shiptwo Unity, or VSS Unity. Its eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity depends on rapid re­use.

Ap­proach: This mar­ket­ing guru and se­rial en­tre­pre­neur reg­u­larly over­promises in a very pub­lic way. He loves court­ing the me­dia. As a re­sult, the com­pany has be­come as de­rided for its de­lays as it has been cel­e­brated for its lofty am­bi­tions. Bri­tain’s Tele­graph news­pa­per re­ferred to Virgin Galac­tic’s “much-promised but lit­tle-de­liv­ered plans” as a “21st-cen­tury ver­sion of Wait­ing for Godot.”

Mile­stones: Space­shiptwo is the world’s first pas­sen­ger-car­ry­ing space­ship built by a pri­vate com­pany for op­er­at­ing a com­mer­cial ser­vice. In May this year Unity com­pleted its sixth rock­et­pow­ered flight, reach­ing su­per­sonic speed and climb­ing to 35 kilo­me­tres above the Earth’s sur­face, which means it still has a way to go (65 kilo­me­tres, to be pre­cise). Set­backs: In 2014 the pre­vi­ous ver­sion of Space­shiptwo Unity, known as the En­ter­prise, came apart mid-flight, killing the co-pi­lot. Com­men­ta­tors have posited that the com­pany could not sur­vive an­other fa­tal crash. Other than this, the only real set­backs have been de­lays. Bran­son orig­i­nally promised a maiden space­flight by 2010. De­spite sev­eral an­nounce­ments about im­mi­nent voyages since then, none has even­tu­ated.

What’s next: “It will be some­thing like two or three more flights be­fore we’re ac­tu­ally in space,” said Bran­son in May this year. Stay tuned.

Net worth: The founder of Tesla and for­mer CEO of Pay­pal, Musk is worth ap­prox­i­mately US$ 20 bil­lion. Chief Ac­tiv­i­ties: Spacex, founded in 2002, de­signs, man­u­fac­tures and launches rock­ets and space­craft. Its core busi­ness is launch­ing satel­lites and trans­port­ing cargo to the ISS for Nasa, and Spacex is un­der con­tract with the govern­ment space agency to take as­tro­nauts there with its Dragon cap­sules, al­though this is still in the works. The US Air Force also con­tin­ues to award Spacex hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in launch con­tracts. But Spacex has much loftier goals.

Mis­sion: To dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the cost of space travel by de­vel­op­ing re­us­able booster rock­ets and cap­sules, with the ul­ti­mate goal of

mak­ing us a “multi-plan­e­tary species.” Musk wants to colonise Mars to pro­tect the hu­man race from ex­tinc­tion. The first pas­sen­gers could take off for the planet as early as 2024, ac­cord­ing to the Spacex founder, with tick­ets around US$200,000. Af­ter land­fall, Musk pre­dicts it would take around 40 years to de­velop a self-suf­fi­cient city on Mars. Pie in the sky stuff? Not en­tirely. “We know the hu­man race has got a fi­nite time if we stay here,” says ANU’S Moore. “Most likely [our ex­tinc­tion] will have some­thing to do with war, dis­ease or a rogue asteroid. Our own sun is go­ing to die at some point too, but that’s an­other bil­lion years away. So [Musk’s] is a fair point. Given enough time, th­ese are gen­uine risks. But is that the rea­son to go to Mars now? I don’t need a sales pitch my­self. For me, it’s enough to say that we can. We’re hu­man be­ings and we can’t help look­ing up and won­der­ing and pon­der­ing and ex­plor­ing.”

Ap­proach: For Musk, space is the new Wild West, a fron­tier that de­mands to be ex­plored. A risk-taker with a pen­chant for push­ing bound­aries, he lives in the me­dia spot­light and is fa­mous for set­ting au­da­cious dead­lines. Daven­port de­scribes Spacex as, at least in the be­gin­ning, “very hard-charg­ing, very scrappy, do­ing it on the cheap us­ing re­cy­cled parts, find­ing in­no­va­tive and ef­fi­cient ways to build their rock­ets, hir­ing very smart peo­ple and re­ally just at­tack­ing it the way a pri­vate en­ter­prise would.”

Mile­stones: Spacex made head­lines in Au­gust when Nasa an­nounced that the com­pany’s Crew Dragon capsule will start trans­port­ing as­tro­nauts to the ISS in 2019, mak­ing it the first com­mer­cially pro­duced space­craft to do so. The Dragon capsule pre­vi­ously achieved a world first when it de­liv­ered a pay­load to the ISS in 2012. Other Spacex mile­stones in­clude de­vel­op­ing the Fal­con 9, the first re­us­able or­bital rocket. In December 2015, the Fal­con 9 suc­ceeded in its first ground land­ing, mak­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of re­flight a re­al­ity. Spacex suc­cess­fully re­launched and landed the Fal­con 9 in March 2017. This con­sti­tuted the world’s first re­flight of an or­bital-class rocket. Then there’s Spacex’s Fal­con Heavy rocket, which has the high­est pay­load ca­pac­ity of any cur­rently oper­a­tional launch ve­hi­cle. On its maiden launch in Fe­bru­ary, it car­ried a Tesla Road­ster as a dummy pay­load. It was de­signed to carry hu­mans into space and, ac­cord­ing to Musk, re­stores the pos­si­bil­ity of fly­ing mis­sions with crew to the moon or Mars.

Set­backs: In 2015, one of Spacex’s Fal­con 9 rock­ets ex­ploded shortly af­ter lift­ing off from Cape Canaveral en route to de­liver cargo to the ISS. An­other Fal­con 9 blew up in Septem­ber 2016, this time while be­ing fu­elled on the launch pad ahead of an engine test. As th­ese were un­manned space­craft, no one was hurt.

What’s next: Spacex, un­der con­tract to Nasa, is re­fin­ing the Dragon capsule to en­able it to fly peo­ple to the ISS, with the first manned test flight ex­pected within six months to a year. If they’re able to do that suc­cess­fully, says Daven­port, we could ex­pect to see rou­tine subor­bital space tourism flights, maybe even or­bital tourism flights, and maybe even tourism flights around the moon in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.

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