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Richard Branson’s launch changes the way we look at space

getty: Richard Branson

Airlines like using signature songs for their commercial advertising, and a few stick with the selected theme songs as brand identifiers. United Airlines has leaned on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for decades, to lure travelers to think of it when selecting an airline to fly to the next vacation destination. 

Richard Branson is betting that we’ll think of Virgin Galactic when we hear Khalid’s “New Normal” the next time we find ourselves with a couple hundred thousand dollars to take a 90-minute joy ride to just beyond the edge of space for a few moments of weightlessness and a unique look at the curvature of the Earth from about 50 miles off the terra firma. That’s now possible for a very few, but that’s how such markets get started to the benefit of all of us eventually.

The airline marketing analogy is particularly apt because what we are witnessing is the opening of a new commercial market and that market is access to space. Branson’s SpaceShip Two flight on Sunday morning was the very first privately financed human spaceflight on a spacecraft built by private investors exclusively to fly people to space who are paying for the experience. All 562 people who have been to space previously were aboard government-sponsored spacecraft on public missions financed by taxpayers. The first commercial airline was founded a little more than a hundred years ago on the same premise to open a new market. But Branson is also betting that his company will last longer than the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line — the first scheduled airline — which folded four months after its first commercial flight. It’s not always an advantage to be the market leader, but the commercial airline transportation market has subsequently flourished even though that original market leader did not. It’s also a new market reality that consumer demand determines winners and losers. For space access, that is now a reality that starts.

This event is not just another example of new capital market formation for commercial service. SpaceShip Two is also an important technology development that can be traced back to the post-World War II-era X-1 aircraft that was the first to break the sound barrier at Mach 1 speed. Fast forward to 2004, when SpaceShip One won the Ansari X-Prize competition to be the first privately developed machine to carry a human to space. Virgin Galactic bought the design from the prize winners and evolved it to a larger vehicle to carry passengers. But the engineering principles and design concept are derived from the prize-winning vehicle. The airframe takes off from a runway, attached to a ferry aircraft that releases it at altitude to fire off at hypersonic speed, piloted to an exo-atmospheric, suborbital position in space. This is a developed technology to achieve a feat that’s been done before, but until now it has required a rocket launch from a pad to do so. Virgin Galactic plans to repeat SpaceShip Two’s accomplishment as often as it can attract customers to pay for the privilege. So far, hundreds have lined up for the opportunity, and that’s a reasonable market test.

The game-changing technology breakthrough is yet to come. A vehicle taking off from any commercial runway headed directly to space with a single propulsion stage would be a huge development. It’s not there yet, but SpaceShip Two just brought us a step closer. And if costs decline the same way technology development patterns often do, commercial access to space could be as accessible as commercial airline destinations around the globe.  

It’s entirely possible that a derivative of SpaceShip Two could eventually replicate the Space Shuttle experience, to orbit the Earth every 90 minutes rather than spend the time just getting to the edge of space and heading back home. Or maybe a trip to the other side of the Earth from takeoff to landing within a couple of hours may be an alternative. The experience that will be gained in the short time ahead may serve to inform the path to these options. Then, more market testing will be required before the options go anywhere. But if the demand emerges to go beyond destinations on Earth, we’ll have to wait for a commercial rocket-launched system to get us there for the near term. The Blue Origin flight with Jeff Bezos next week may be the opening gong for that chapter aboard the appropriately named “New Shephard” spacecraft.

A Russian, Yuri Gagarin, was the first human to fly to space 60 years ago. Alan Shepard was the first American to do the same, a month after Gagarin.  They are the early heroes in the U.S.-Soviet “Space Race” that ultimately culminated less than a decade later when the U.S. got to the Moon first. Along the way, the “race” was the catalyst for more space exploration, pursuit of scientific inquiry, technology-development accelerators and global economic expansion. Some may cynically think that Gagarin and Shepard took outlandish risks and taxpayers shelled out a fortune so that others could someday have the same experience for fun and profit once it got safer. That’s one way to look at it. 

At another level, it is the human desire to explore, to discover and to have new experiences that has been the catalyst for all advances since the dawn of human history. Each advance came about because entrepreneurs developed, cultivated and promoted demand for existing capabilities they exploited. Some critics have argued that the SpaceShip Two achievement could never have been done by NASA. That’s quite true: If NASA had developed a $1 billion light spacecraft to ferry six people to space in standard aircraft flight suits and no helmets for the sole purpose of a thrilling experience, a congressional inquiry would have been launched the day after the first flight. Public projects are not designed for such purposes. These are derivative applications of capabilities designed for entirely separate reasons. 

But that is how CT-scanners came to have been designed by a recording company that produced the Beatles’ first album, and steel-belted radials resulted from scientists imagining new applications for a polymer called Kevlar that never did get used for tires, or the heart pump that was developed by a medical technologist who miniaturized a Space Shuttle fluid mechanical device. These were not the purposes of the publicly financed invention, development or service, but it surely made them possible and might not have happened but for the public sector innovations they were derived from.

Virgin Galactic’s YouTube broadcast on Sunday had the feel of an Emeril Lagasse infomercial to sell some new revolutionary kitchen product or an addition to the spice rack. But the event also made access to space seem like something that maybe any of us could experience someday not too far off. And if that happens, it will be a collateral benefit because, as taxpayers, we yielded to the desire to learn more about the world we live in, the solar system we are part of, and the universe we have barely begun to explore.  

Sean O’Keefe is a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School and previously served as NASA administrator in the George W. Bush administration. 

Tags Jeff Bezos NASA Richard Branson Sean O’Keefe Space Spaceflight Technology Virgin Galactic

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