Boe­ing backs Vir­gin Galac­tic’s high-speed trans­port pro­gram

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Chris­tian Daven­port

Boe­ing will in­vest $20 mil­lion in Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Galac­tic to help it de­velop tech­nolo­gies that would al­low for high­speed trans­porta­tion to ferry pas­sen­gers across the globe faster than the speed of sound, and pos­si­bly through space.

The in­vest­ment is a rel­a­tively mod­est amount for the avi­a­tion be­he­moth. But it rep­re­sents what the com­pa­nies called a “first step” in an un­usual cor­po­rate part­ner­ship that they hope will dra­mat­i­cally cut travel time.

Vir­gin Galac­tic, the self-pro­claimed “world’s first com­mer­cial space­line,” is work­ing to ferry pay­ing pas­sen­gers to the edge of space and back by next year. The com­pany has al­ready reached space twice, once in late 2018 and then again ear­lier this year. But Bran­son’s goal has long been to de­velop a pow­er­ful jet ca­pa­ble of criss­cross­ing the globe at very high speeds, and even leav­ing the at­mos­phere.

The com­pa­nies said one of their main goals was to see if they could de­velop a ve­hi­cle ca­pa­ble of hy­per­sonic speed that would travel at five times the speed of sound.

In a state­ment to The Post, Bran­son said the deal marked “the be­gin­ning of an im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion for the fu­ture of air and space travel, which are the nat­u­ral next steps for us. Vir­gin Galac­tic and Boe­ing share a vi­sion of open­ing ac­cess to the world and space, to more peo­ple in safe and en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble ways.

In an interview, Ge­orge White­sides, Vir­gin Galac­tic’s CEO, said the goal was to lever­age Boe­ing’s avi­a­tion ex­per­tise as Vir­gin Galac­tic works on new propul­sion sys­tems and ma­te­ri­als to build a new-gen­er­a­tion trans­porta­tion sys­tem that would be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.

It is too early to say, how­ever, what the design would be — whether it would be a ve­hi­cle ca­pa­ble of get­ting to space and reen­ter­ing, or a su­per­sonic jet that would stay in the up­per at­mos­phere.

The com­pa­nies said they were well aware that travel go­ing faster than the speed of sound has proved com­mer­cially dif­fi­cult and that find­ing a vi­able mar­ket for it, even if the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges are over­come, has been tried be­fore. Boe­ing won a gov­ern­ment com­pe­ti­tion to build a su­per­sonic trans­port in the 1960s but abandoned the project in 1971 when Congress elim­i­nated fund­ing.

The Con­corde, a cre­ation of a Bri­tish-French con­sor­tium, whisked pas­sen­gers at twice the speed of sound on in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal flights for 27 years. But it proved an ex­pen­sive op­tion for pas­sen­gers and was taken out of ser­vice in 2003. No one has found a model that works com­mer­cially since.

The an­nounce­ment of Boe­ing’s in­vest­ment comes as the com­pany is still reel­ing from two fa­tal crashes in­volv­ing its 737 Max air­planes and has faced re­peated de­lays in build­ing a space­craft for NASA that would fly as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Still, Brian Schet­tler, se­nior man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Boe­ing Hori­zonX Ven­tures, which in­vests in star­tups and new tech­nolo­gies, said that the part­ner­ship be­tween Vir­gin Galac­tic, which Bran­son founded with the goal of fer­ry­ing tourists to space, and Boe­ing, which has been a key player since the dawn of the Space Age, would help com­mer­cial­ize space.

Vir­gin Galac­tic soon plans to start fly­ing cus­tomers who are pay­ing as much as $250,000 for tourist jaunts to space out of Space­port Amer­ica in New Mex­ico.

VIR­GIN GALAC­TIC/AP

The VSS Unity is one of the space­planes devel­oped for Vir­gin Galac­tic’s fleet.

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