Business, Sci-Tech

Space: capitalism’s final frontier

By Branko Brkic 8 December 2009

Space Adventures, the company that placed Mark Shuttleworth on a Russian Soyuz in 2002, has until now been the world’s only private firm to offer commercial space travel. On Monday, Richard Branson unveiled the competition.

Well, there are some risks. You could explode in a ball of flame on the launch pad, explode in a ball of flame seconds after launch, explode in a ball of flame in orbit or sub-orbit. Your oxygen supply could run out. The computers could malfunction. You could go for a spacewalk and accidentally lose your tether. You could burn up on re-entry, land miles off course in the sea and drown, land miles off course in the sea and be taken hostage by Javanese pirates. Or you could, like Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto, pay US$21-million for a spaceflight and be told, weeks before launch, that you’ve got no medical clearance and, uh, sorry but there’s no refund.

Enomoto was a client of Space Adventures, the world’s first space tourism company, the same guys who took Mark Shuttleworth to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz in 2002. Shuttleworth was very happy with the service provided by Space Adventures – he thanked them profusely for their “invaluable support” in helping him realise his dream – but CEO Eric C. Anderson quickly learned with Enomoto that you can’t please all the customers all the time. So while Enomoto threatened to sue Space Adventures, Richard Branson stepped up to provide the company with a healthy dose of competition.

Photo: Aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Richard Branson participate in a news conference before Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of its new commercial spaceship SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, California December 7, 2009. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

On Monday, Branson unveiled Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The craft, which can carry six passengers and two pilots, is expected to begin test flights next year, with the first commercial flights planned for 2011 or 2012. According to the New York Times, a seat on SpaceShipTwo might soon cost punters as little as US$200,000, but then the paper also says that “about 300 people from around the world have paid a total of US$40-million in deposits to guarantee spots on the carbon composite aircraft.”

If space is to be the next generation of business travel, as aerospace experts are predicting, the costs are going to have to come down significantly – even off the US$200,000 a ticket touted by Virgin Galactic. Of course there is always one factor that introduces cost efficiencies into a market, which is now starting to make its presence felt in the spaceflight industry: the enthusiasm of the private entrepreneur.

In late November a six-metre rocket was launched into space from a New Zealand island, carrying a payload of 23,000 messages to dead relatives from family members around the planet. Rocket Lab, the company that built the rocket, founded by Peter Beck and Mark Rocket (no, really), is apparently the first private firm in the southern hemisphere to make a successful space launch.

Space Services, a Houston-based company that offers space funerals, has been in operation for a few years already – last year they took the remains of hundreds of people into space, compared to only 27 in 2007, so business for them is looking up (sorry, I know).

And then there is South African-born Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, who in 2002 founded SpaceX, a space transport company. Musk has sunk over US$100-million of his own money into the venture, an investment that looks set to pay off. In late December last year, SpaceX announced that it had won a US$1.6-billion NASA contract to carry cargo to the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle retires in 2010.

Photo: Richard Branson uncorks a bottle of champagne as he christens Virgin Galactic’s mothership WhiteKnightTwo, Eve, in honor of his mother Eve Branson (L) during its public roll-out in Mojave, California July 28, 2008. The twin fuselage aircraft WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo to launch commercial passengers into space. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

But it’s Branson’s venture that has the media’s attention right now. At yesterday’s event, the man who’s put the Virgin name on everything from cosmetics to cola revealed that the prototype of WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that will transport SpaceShipTwo beyond the atmosphere, had been dubbed Virgin MotherShip Eve, in a tribute to Branson’s mother. This subtle hint that the British billionaire reckons he may have been immaculately conceived was backed up by the image emblazoned on the craft’s fuselage – a young woman, symbolic of Eve, diving through space.

Branson, his family, and the American designer of the spaceship, Burt Rutan, are planning to be on the craft’s first passenger flight, hopefully in 18 months from now. The Bransons and Rutan will sit in SpaceShipTwo, and when the rockets ignite on Virgin MotherShip Eve they will be propelled to the edge of the atmosphere. At 60,000 feet the mothership will drop away and the rocket will ignite on the space pod, taking the son and his family into the realm of the gods.  

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: Los Angeles Times

Main photo: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is unveiled in Mojave, California December 7, 2009. Richard Branson on Monday unveiled the first commercial passenger spaceship, a sleek black-and-white vessel that represents an expensive gamble on creating a commercial space tourism industry. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

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