Richard Branson expects to see Virgin Galactic return to space before the year is out, while the first paying ‘space tourists’ could be enjoying a zero-gravity getaway in the second half of 2018.
“Our spaceship will be back in space by the end of the year, and I plan to go into space next year,” the Virgin brand supremo told Australian Business Traveller during the inaugural flight of Virgin Australia’s new Melbourne-Hong Kong route.
“We’re building four spaceships at the moment so our (commercial) space program should start maybe in the second half of 2018 putting people up into space.”
Branson’s ambitious Virgin Galactic program was grounded in October 2014 after the loss of the VSS Enterprise, which broke apart in midair, resulting in the death of its co-pilot.
“That accident was a major, major blow but everyone’s worked day and night since then to get us back on track.”
Branson described his space tourism venture as “the hardest thing I've ever done. It’s been 12 hard years to get this far, but this is rocket science and rocket science is hard… but it will be all the more worthwhile when we finally get there.”
When Virgin Galactic finally overcomes what Branson calls his “long space struggle”, the Brit billionaire admits he will face “some formidable competition with formidably deep pockets” in the form of Elon Musk’s Space X and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
“But the market is enormous. Most people would like to go to space, so I think the demand will way outstrip supply (in the number of) spaceships we can build. As long as we can be sure it’s safe and once we can make it more affordable, as fast as we build spaceships they'll be full up.”
That said, Branson is sounding less confident about transitioning Virgin Galactic from bucket-list tourism to travel for the very well-heeled.
“If we can put people onto orbital flights they'll be able to reach Australia from London in around half an hour, maybe one and a half hours in getting slots to land… so it’s just going to be the time at the airport that’s going to be a pain, then you lift off and hold on for dear life” he laughs.
“But it could be that in orbital flight the G-force may not get lots of customers, so maybe it’s just a lovely idea.”
This is one reason Branson is backing the Boom supersonic concept jet, of which he has ordered 10 and says Virgin Galactic is “helping build the Boom ships.”
“They will be much faster than Concorde but still be flying sub-orbital, so maybe Boom will be about as fast as is sensible from a passenger comfort perspective.”
David Flynn travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of Virgin Australia