RICHARD 8RANSON Vir gin Galactic
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.