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  (Source: Virgin Galactic/Clay Center Observatory)
Full commercial launch will kick off next year, offering up $200-250K suborbital flights on its 6-passenger plane

After more than a decade of development, two major craft designs, and dozens of manned launches, the company that pulled off the world's first private spaceflight is less than a year away from its goal of creating a commercial suborbital space tourism business.

I. Mojave Aerospace Ventures Made Winning the $10M Ansari X Prize Look Easy

The story of SpaceShipTwo and Virgin Galactic began in 1996 when Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen met Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer known for his renegade unorthodox designs.  By then, Mr. Rutan was already an iconic figure in the aerospace industry having convinced corporate aerospace investors to back his firm, Scaled Composites. In Mr. Allen's book Idea Man he recalls, "Burt had already begun thinking about a supersonic plane that could fly above the atmosphere."

It took four more years for Mr. Rutan to come up with his plan for the suborbital flier -- an air launched spacecraft with feathered wings for a gentle reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.  Two years later Allen put his money where his mouth was, putting up the cash to launch Mojave Aerospace Ventures LLC (MAV) and making Mr. Rutan its minority owner.

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen
Burt Rutan, right, and Paul Allen [Image Source: AP]

At first, MAV declined to target the X PRIZE -- a competition to send a 3 passenger craft on a suborbital flight to the "edge of space".  But in 2003 when the price got funding (to be finalized in 2004) from venture capitalists Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari, MAV decided to go for the gold, expanding their SpaceShipOne design from a one-passenger to a three passenger craft -- a design shift that increased the projected cost from $9M USD to $19M USD.  Paul Allen recalls, "Based on what I’d heard about bleeding-edge aircraft, I expected SpaceShipOne to come in overweight, underpowered, over budget, and behind schedule."

SpaceShip One design
An infographic explaining SpaceShip One's mothership launch and feathered landing mechanism. [Image Source: Scaled Composites]

But just two years after beginning work in 2001, Mr. Rutan had delivered a near finished craft.  Just slightly over budget (with an estimated development cost of $25M USD), the craft completed its first manned test flight in July 2003, launched from the Scaled Composites White Knight mothership. 

SpaceShip One X Prize
SpaceShip One hit X Prize gold in 2004. [Image Source: Scaled Composites]

By Dec. 2003, the craft had achieved supersonic flight, and on its sixteenth manned flight on Oct. 4, 2004, piloted by Brian Binnie, the craft achieved suborbital flight.  Climbing to 112 kilometers above the Earth, SpaceShipOne reached a speed of Mach 3.  The flight fulfilled the criteria of the Ansari X Prize, scoring MAV $10M USD.

II. "The Space Company" is Born

Following that success billionaire space dreamer Richard Branson jumped at the opportunity to turn the success into a money-making commercial venture, the likes of which the world had never seen.  Scaled Composites (with funding from Paul Allen) partnered as the minority owner (30 percent) in a new venture called "The Spaceship Company", which was majority owned (70 percent) by Richard Branson's 2004 creation, Virgin Group Ltd. subsidiary "Virgin Galactic".

The billionaires club of Paul Allen and Richard Branson put their financial brawn behind Burt Rutan's brains and soon a new mothership (White Knight Two) and space plane (SpaceShipTwo) were made.  In July 2008 the first mothership and plane were rolled out.

The White Knight Two bumps its predecessor's payload capability from 3,600 kg to 17,000 kg (~37,500 pounds).  

White Knight Two
The White Knight Two, aka the Virgin Mothership (VMS) [Image Source: Virgin Galactic]

Dubbed the Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve (after Mr. Branson's mother), the craft first took flight in 2008 and underwent extensive testing the next year.

VMS EveVMS Eve, a White Knight Two mothership [Image Source: Virgin Galactic]

Meanwhile the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) was undergoing unmanned ground testing.  Then in 2010 the VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise, the carrier craft successfully flew in March 2010 to 43,000 feet.  The next two years the VSS Enterprise completed 26 test flights to test its feathered glide mechanics.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two
Scaled Composites' SpaceShip Two, aka the Virgin Spaceship (VSS) [SS2]

Northrop Grumman Comp. (NOC) is now peripherally tied to the project, as well, having bought out the majority ownership of Scaled Composites in July 2007.

III. SpaceShipTwo's Rocket Testing Continues

In 2013 the craft was fitted with its new rocket engine and this April it saw its first supersonic test.  

SpaceShip Two
The VSS Enterprise achieved rocket flight this April. [Image Source: Virgin Galactic]

And last week -- on Sept. 5 -- SpaceShipTwo achieved supersonic flight hitting mach 1.43 during its climb from its release point at 42,000 feet to 69,000 feet (21 km) over the Mojave Desert.

The company reports:

In addition to achieving the highest altitude and greatest speed to date, the test flight demonstrated the vehicle's full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time ... All of the test objectives were successfully completed

Virgin Galactic

VSS Enterprise 2

VSS Enterprise

VSS Enterprise

VSS Enterprise
Images from the second test launch. [Image Source: Virgin Galactic]

Richard Branson adds in a blog post:

Virgin Galactic is now gearing up for the commercial service, finalizing cabin interiors, flight suits, training programs and the multiple other details required to offer hundreds of aspiring astronauts a safe and awe-inspiring journey.

SpaceShip Two's second flight
SpaceShip Two pictured in its second rocket flight [Image Source: Clay Center Observatory]

He confirms that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared Virgin Galactic's flight license application for review, a major step towards getting permission from the U.S. government to conduct commercial flights next year.

IV. A Profitable Business?

With $400M USD in development costs, SpaceShipTwo has fulfilled Mr. Allen's original predictions of dire cost overruns (the original cost of development was estimated at $108M USD) [source].  

But Richard Branson and his partners are convinced the venture will eventually yield big products, fulfilling the dreams of many wealthy customers to experience spaceflight.  The SpaceShip Company has created a plant in the Mojave Desert and has already produced the second of five additional SS2 crafts.  An additional three White Knight Two motherships are also scheduled for production.  And they've created a thriving spaceport affiliated with the Mojave Airport, with a much larger port dubbed "Spaceport America" coming to the New Mexico's desert.

Mojave spaceport
Spaceport America, located in the Mojave Desert aims to be a thriving space tourism hub.
[Image Source: Spaceport America]

Looking ahead the SS2's first suborbital flight test is scheduled to for December 2013.  Assuming success, Virgin Galactic plans to in 2014 official launch its commercial spaceflights.  Richard Branson has said that Virgin Galactic is planning for 50 to 100 spaceflights in 2014 and 2015, carrying up to 600 passengers.

At last count Virgin Galactic has already booked 575 customers -- despite turning down some more risqué offers, such as sex in (sub)space.

In April 2013, Richard Branson announced that the cost of a flight would rise from the original target of $200,000 USD to $250,000 USD "until the first 1,000 people have traveled, so that it matches up with inflation since [Virgin Galactic] started."

Branson Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson believes space tourism can be profitable. [Image Source: CNN]

It is unclear whether that price bump caused Virgin Galactic to lose any customers, but the company reportedly at least has 500 passengers onboard at its current rates.  Among the celebrities looking to taste a ride on the SS2 are Ashton Kutcher -- who played Apple, Inc.'s (AAPLlate CEO Steve Jobs in a recent biopic.

Ashton Kutcher is among the early celebrities to reserve a Virgin Galactic space trip.
[Image Source: Vanity Fair]

The flights next year will net Virgin Galactic $1.5M USD per flight.  Flights will last two hours, with a few minutes of time in suborbital space.  If Virgin Galactic can launch 100 fully occupied flights in 2014, it could make $150M USD before costs.

In total 65,000 people have applied for tickets (although most have not fully paid).  If all these passengers follow through, Virgin Galactic could see 1,100 flights over the next decade, scoring $13B USD (assuming a $200K ticket price after the first 1,000 passengers).  In other words, a lot of work remains, but Virgin Galactic could be the first profitable large-scale suborbital tourism venture.

Sources: Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's Blog, YouTube

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By Angstromm on 9/8/2013 5:03:20 PM , Rating: 2
Ok,couple of observations:

1. "Virgin"
2. Note the shape of "Spaceport America"

Take a look at some of the high res pics of this thing...what do you thing...put you in mind of anything?

RE: Hummm
By Angstromm on 9/8/2013 5:06:28 PM , Rating: 2
ummm, "think" what do you "think." Sheesh...

RE: Hummm
By puter_geek_01 on 9/9/2013 9:57:01 AM , Rating: 2
Millennium Falcon? Yes, I'm a virgin...

RE: Hummm
By Angstromm on 9/9/2013 3:22:38 PM , Rating: 2
Well, think ovum and the little swimmers?

RE: Hummm
By puter_geek_01 on 9/9/2013 5:10:04 PM , Rating: 2
It was supposed to be a joke. Get it? You know, Star Wars fanatics are usually virgins?

Also, I have kids. If you need that spelled out, too: I am not a virgin.

RE: Hummm
By retrospooty on 9/9/2013 11:42:36 AM , Rating: 2
Maybe if there was some sort of a command module at the tip it would be a little more obvious.

RE: Hummm
By Angstromm on 9/9/2013 3:19:18 PM , Rating: 2
Excellent, um, er, point

RE: Hummm
By retrospooty on 9/9/2013 3:38:25 PM , Rating: 2
More of a button, but yes... :D

RE: Hummm
By Angstromm on 9/9/2013 8:46:21 PM , Rating: 2
you nailed it ;)

RE: Hummm
By unimatrix725 on 9/10/2013 11:57:35 AM , Rating: 2
Yap... Looks like a Virgin Vagina to me too... Was wandering about the design and you had to say something. lmoa

How far can the price drop?
By MrBungle123 on 9/8/2013 2:49:43 PM , Rating: 2
I wonder what the fuel cost to virgin galactic for each trip is... that would give us an idea if an "average joe" will ever be able to afford to go.

RE: How far can the price drop?
By Shig on 9/8/2013 3:12:50 PM , Rating: 2
If they can show the market a nice profit margin after 4-5 years, the price will drop incredibly fast. A second plane would also be a lot cheaper than the first one.

This also paves the way for commercial passenger sub orbital planes. NY -> Sydney in 4 hours, etc.

Exciting times.

RE: How far can the price drop?
By purerice on 9/8/2013 11:14:07 PM , Rating: 2
You are right about the unit price, but the question was about fuel price which is largely fixed.

I'm curious as well how much fuel this uses per trip, but it must be less than $250,000 worth.

RE: How far can the price drop?
By Reclaimer77 on 9/8/2013 6:26:06 PM , Rating: 3
This is just a proof of concept. Future models will have way more than six seats, which helps bring the individual costs down.

By delphinus100 on 9/9/2013 10:33:36 PM , Rating: 2
SpaceShipOne was the 'proof of concept.'

This is essentially the production version.

Structural Stability
By DrApop on 9/9/2013 9:29:41 AM , Rating: 2
Branson is talking about 100 flight to suborbital space in a year or two after startup.

I'm just wondering about the ship and launch vehicles structural stability for that many flights. They indicated that there will be around 5 total space ships and about 3 motherships.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of external pressures on any ship that goes into space and returns.

But I am happy they are taking up the challenge...I remember watching when they won the Ansi prize. Would be great if they were to get an orbital flight going but that would require a whole lot more speed and would make reentry a lot more difficult than just an up and down venture as it currently stands.

RE: Structural Stability
By melgross on 9/9/2013 3:24:06 PM , Rating: 2
I would imagine that the first ships being built now will prove to be just the first. If this does become popular, then there will be funding to build more. If not, then no point in building a bigger fleet now.

tickets for the White Knight II?
By purerice on 9/8/2013 11:19:23 PM , Rating: 2
I would be happy just to cruise on the WK2. If they could get that to the altitude that the U2 flew at and charged, say, $2000 per ticket for 12 people (plus reducing the rocket fuel required for the space ship itself) they could give a great view for those who can't afford $200k space flights.

Kutcher goes for free
By cmart on 9/9/2013 12:08:56 PM , Rating: 2
Nice for Ashton -- I'm assuming he'll be reimbursed fully for his seat, once he takes a few pics with his Nikon.

Ask Henry Ford if its ok
By KOOLTIME on 9/11/2013 11:17:51 AM , Rating: 2
The same concept as Henry Ford had on his original car.

The original cars were the same in fact, only the extremely rich could afford to drive them. Now its more affordable after decades for the masses and development and research.

This will be the same, which is solid plan they have put on the table here. Fords original car is long gone from use, compared to today's models, but the overall concept and ideas are the same.

Only thing not discussed so far is the health issues for this type of ride, going mach 3 in sub space = what for average person, the inside ride is not discussed, nor what conditioning or skills people need to have to begin thinking about a early seat ride aka the 1st 100 rides ??

Hopefully they will start disclosing the manned conditions for civilians soon.

nice but
By GulWestfale on 9/8/13, Rating: -1
RE: nice but
By osalcido on 9/8/2013 1:57:30 PM , Rating: 1
First you cry about it not having a safety record and cry about the cost then you want it to complete a full orbit (which is exponentially less safe and exponentially more expensive)..

I don't think they have to worry about not having your business

RE: nice but
By ritualm on 9/8/2013 3:35:22 PM , Rating: 2
this thing has no established safety record

Proven safe since 2003. That's a full decade for you.

When you're dealing with space and reentry, failure is NOT an option. Just like NASA's Cassini, Voyager and various Mars probes, these crafts are massively overbuilt on purpose, such that their safety is guaranteed for the first several years of service.
let someone else be the guinea pig

Classic quote from a late adopter.
this is more of an upscaled amusement park ride than actual spaceflight

Unlike the simulated microgravity in NASA's 747 training plane (it alternates between steep climbs and steep dives to simulate weightlessness), you will be able to see space and all its darkness with your own eyes.
the price. 200k?

Wrong, the price is now 250K, and it's really peanuts when you consider just how much money needs to be spent per pound on a Soyuz or SpaceX rocket.
it really needs to work out the above issues before i would be interested

In other words, you're not interested until it costs under $100 per person, such that it becomes an impulse purchase instead of a "I get to do this and you'll never get it in your lifetime!" sort of thing.

RE: nice but
By GulWestfale on 9/8/13, Rating: -1
RE: nice but
By Samus on 9/8/2013 9:04:35 PM , Rating: 2
I'll repeat the previous post for you.

I don't think they have to worry about not having your business

Bitching will result in their tickets being pull at the gate.

I can't believe the audacity of commenting on the safety of a first-generation product of anything. People used to DIE starting their cars with a hand-crank. Now cars are safer than ever, and they are still the most deadly way to travel!

RE: nice but
By GulWestfale on 9/8/2013 9:24:46 PM , Rating: 1
plus, i don't wanna be anywhere near ashton kutcher. ever.

RE: nice but
By aliasfox on 9/9/2013 10:22:54 AM , Rating: 2
Good for you. You wouldn't have flown in an early airplane or crossed the Atlantic on an early steamship. I'm sure flights on a Ford Trimotor or a trip on the SS Savannah were also expensive, exciting, and probably dangerous. To think otherwise is foolish. In fact, even as recently as the 1960s normal international air travel was prohibitively expensive by today's standards. People still did it, despite the risks (the original BAC Comet, for instance) and expense - airfare in the 1950s could've been hundreds of dollars when the average salary was in the four-figures. And yet, from there we spawned the Boeing 777 and the Queen Mary 2; $299 cross country flights and $399 5-night cruises

Without people willing to take the risk, expense, and thrill of the first step, there won't be a second (or 80-th) step for you to take.

But you know what? If I had $250k to spare on a week of my life I'd get in line. Many people spend far more in less time in Vegas and Macao, and that's far less exciting to me. And with no sex in space, I'm sure the risk of VD is a lot lower than Vegas and Macao, too.

Of course, the thought of going into space on the Enterprise gives the Trekkie in me a huge stiffie.

RE: nice but
By 91TTZ on 9/9/2013 4:35:05 PM , Rating: 2
In fact, even as recently as the 1960s normal international air travel was prohibitively expensive by today's standards.

Not really. The price would seem higher but people had a lot more disposable income then.

RE: nice but
By aliasfox on 9/10/2013 1:12:12 PM , Rating: 2

Yes, it was prohibitively expensive for most people to fly internationally. It lists a typical 1 way domestic flight (NYC > LAX) at $785 when converted to 2010 dollars, which would mean ~$1570 round trip. Dunno about you, but even if my other expenses were lower (and thus my disposable income higher), $1500 would still sound like a decent chunk of change.

RE: nice but
By GulWestfale on 9/9/2013 6:44:37 PM , Rating: 2
um, this not about taking a first step into space here, buddy. this is a commercial company that sends wanna-be astronauts into microgravity for a couple of minutes. you're not an explorer or a brave hero, you're just a consumer. that's all.

RE: nice but
By ritualm on 9/9/2013 10:01:44 PM , Rating: 2
If I'm filthy rich, I'd gladly pay $250K - maybe even double that - for a ticket just because I can.

Your arguments are irrelevant.

RE: nice but
By aliasfox on 9/10/2013 1:13:30 PM , Rating: 2
Considering I most likely will never be an explorer going where no man has gone before, I'll take the opportunity to pay to go where few men have gone before.

Now to come up with $250k in disposable income. At least the Powerball's up over $200 million again...

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