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Virgin Galactic

Astronauts all, but the goal is long-haul

The space race is on, to provide regular affordable flights for business, research and tourism. And whilst the development has not been without problems, Virgin’s vision, determination and spacecraft design, promises to go where others haven't, or at least from London to Sydney in one hour.

virgin GalacticRichard Branson was looking for a new challenge. Having conquered music and flight, retail and banking, he pondered where next. “To the moon?” suggested a helpful waitress. Like most new ventures, Virgin had little idea how to enter the market, but finding the right partners has always been a strength. And in particular, partners who can help do things differently, better for customers, and ultimately for business too.

“Space travel is absolutely, unbelievably exciting” Branson told me. “For a British company to be preparing to be the first to take fare-paying customers into space is phenomenal. We registered the name Virgin Galactic in 1991 and then spent a decade looking for potential engineers to build a reusable spaceship.”

“We explored mad, zany ideas, and then found Burt Rutan who’s the absolute genius in this area. He’d come up with the idea of turning the spaceship into a massive shuttle cock, to slow the vehicle on its dangerous re-entry phase. The whole project is almost carbon neutral. Each space flight will generate fewer emissions than a flight to New York, whereas NASA use the power of New York City to spend up the Space Shuttle” he said.

The spaceship takes off on the back of a larger “carrier” rising to around 50,000 feet, the cruising altitude of Concorde, where it is then launched horizontally into space requiring much less power (Branson’s vision is to use biofuels from his Caribbean algae farms). Accelerating from 170 knots in gliding mode to four times the speed of sound in six seconds, you are suddenly weightless. Indeed the cabin is designed with huge windows to look down on our planet, and space to jump around, to enjoy the thrill of space. Branson says he wants to turn an experience of only 540 people in 50 years into one shared by many more, and already has a waitlist almost as long.

Pivot points for Virgin Galactic in “changing the game” of space travel were:

  • Think: Imagining new markets and shaping them in your own vision
  • Design:  Designing launch and flight solutions that enabled new experiences
  • Inspire: Building a brand that reinvigorates Virgin, and inspires a waiting list
  • Impact: Finding more efficient and less damaging ways to make it work

Watching the test flights from Spaceport America, deep in the New Mexico desert, it’s easy to dream of flights to Mars, or even jumping on-board for a one-hour tourist flight to circle Earth after being kitted out in your space suit and a short safety briefing. But the real ambition of Virgin is more terrestrial. The ability to launch and land efficiently makes frequent flights and fast turnarounds possible. Between continents, rather than just into space and back. Imagine flying from LA to Sydney, or Shanghai to London, in one hour … that is the real game-changing vision of Virgin Galactic.

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