A report in The Sunday Telegraph newspaper examined Sir Richard Branson’s much-delayed promises to take people – and satellites – into space.
Branson’s latest commitment is to start human flights in 2020, taking fare-paying passengers beyond the nominal Karman Line which indicates the start of ‘Space’ at 62 miles (100 kms) above the Earth.
However, it echoes similar promises made since he registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways in 1988. The newspaper reminds readers that it was in 2004 that Virgin’s SpaceShipOne flew and he promised that an enlarged space-plane would be taking passengers into sub-orbital space by 2007.
The journey has been painful. In 2007 three workers were killed in a ground explosion at the company’s Mojave Desert factory. More recently, and on SpaceShip Two, a mid-air catastrophe in 2014 killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
Tests resumed in 2018 with the latest space-plane ‘Unity’ and Virgin Galactic now saying that by 2023 it will have flown 3000 passengers by 2023.
Branson has recently spun off Virgin’s satellite launching scheme into Virgin Orbit, but he has reversed Virgin Galactic into a new quoted business, Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH). SCH investors take 49 per cent of the new business with Virgin Galactic’s shareholders receiving 51 percent. Also involved in Virgin Galactic is Abu Dhabi’s Aabar, a privately held portion of Government-owned Mubadala which holds 37.8 per cent.
The Sunday Telegraph said that after these financial moves Virgin Group will hold just 32 per cent of the new SCH-backed business, and maybe less.
Virgin claim that more than 600 individuals, including plenty of high-profile Hollywood celebrities, have paid substantial deposits to climb aboard a Galactic flight. However, the company has been taking these bookings for 16 years, and – if flights commence next year – that will be 13 years behind schedule.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX founded in 2002 made the first privately-funded rocket to reach orbit. SpaceX launched, orbited and recovered a spacecraft (the Dragon capsule in 2010), the first landing (2015) and now frequent landings of its reusable rockets. SpaceX has, to date, landed 25 boosters (including 23 Falcon 9’s). Its own ‘people mover’ the Grasshopper vertical take-off and landing rocket is well advanced.
Time will tell who lofts the first fare-paying passengers into space.