Galactic Optimism

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Virgin Galactic spinners were in overdrive last week and various newspapers bought it. CEO George Whiteside is confidently predicting that the NEW Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 will be launching satellites in 2018.

As we previously noted, Branson’s PR operation cannot cope with the death of the test pilot last year, which some people, including the NTSB Investigators suggest was in part caused by excessive haste on the part of Galactic to get things done. Many observers have noted that the Space Tourism plane simply cannot generate enough thrust to reliably complete its mission, and following the fatality it seems unlikely that without large scale redesign and exhaustive testing under the watchful eye of the FAA, that it will fly again in the near future or possibly ever. Some space industry veterans are still appalled that Branson tried to spin his way out of it by distancing himself from the aircraft manufacturer Scaled Composites and a lot of bad blood now exists in the business towards him for that reason.

So Branson’s strategy, as reported this weekend, is to pretend the space tourism plan never happened and that it really is all about launching small satellites into space. So, does this plan hold water or is it just another Branson PR trick (like his “promise” to invest $3bn in ECO technology, or to launch tourists into space by 2007)?

Tourists were supposed to fly at 100Km above Earth. To launch even the smallest of satellites the vehicle must travel to 500Km above Earth. So the challenge is greatly multiplied. Given the already 8 year delay to tourism, with a craft that simply does not work, that seems like an ambitious plan. But the Spaceship 2 appears only recently to have emerged from the drawing board, with a mock-up of a chassis being shown widely on the media recently but we understand that the rather more important engine and avionics is still developmental.

The world’s leading satellite launch company, Arianespace recently announced the commencement of construction of the new design Ariane 6 launcher, which is an evolution of their sensationally successful Ariane 5 launcher and in fact re-uses the Ariane 5 engines. Despite the advanced status of this programme, the first flight is not scheduled until 2020. So what chance does Virgin stand of getting a failed vehicle turned into one five times more capable in two and a half years? About as much chance as Branson has of keeping most of his other “promises”.

But even if it at some point works, is there a market? Well, the smallest of satellites called Cubesats are launched mainly for science and research. There is not a lot of money in that, but the industry is also beginning to express grave disquiet about the amount of space junk these projects are causing. They are not built to be robust enough to safely deorbit and are causing a big junk problem to escalate in the low earth orbit region. We gather there will be discussion on this thorny subject in forthcoming United Nations WRC meetings. Branson allegedly “invested” in potential customer OneWeb, which would need to invent many impossible things and raise about $5bn to gets its small sats into business. So although some manufacturer/promoters would LOVE for Wall Street to pay them to build this white elephant, it seems unlikely…

This is all shaping up to be Branson’s biggest disaster.

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