We spoke to the President of Virgin Galactic, Steve Isakowitz, about the work this pioneering private space company is doing and what we can expect in the future.
Why are space planes like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo so important for the exploration of space?
Well I think it’s going after one of the toughest problems in space exploration, which is that if you’re ultimately going to reduce the cost of getting people into space, one needs to demonstrate a routine ability to reuse hardware and to fly things over and over. [Space travel is] really the only transportation mode, whether it’s submarines, ships, cars or planes, where we throw everything away every time we fly And until we demonstrate the ability to reuse the hardware we’ll never get the cost down to where it’s affordable for anybody, whether it’s governments or individuals, to be able to fly into space. What we’re trying to achieve at Virgin Galactic is the ability to fly into these suborbital flights, bring down the hardware, turn it around quickly and re-fly it over and over again. It’s a necessary first step to prove the ultimate economics of space travel.
Will the cost of a ticket on SpaceShipTwo come down from its current price of $250,000 (£163,000) in the future?
I’m confident it will. It’s like any new product that pushes the boundaries of technology; the first users are always going to have to pay a premium as you’re accepting a higher risk of developing that technology and bringing it to market. But as the product gains acceptance over time and demand grows then prices will inevitably come down. That is our plan. Our goal is to open up the space frontier to anybody who has the desire to go there. [SpaceShipTwo] is a second-generation vehicle for us — the first-generation was SpaceShipOne, which was the prototype that proved itself. The second-generation is the one we’re now making commercial, which will carry six passengers. And once we prove this one out we expect to have a third, fourth and a fifth generation that will continue tc drive down costs and improve reliability.
Has work on SpaceShipThree begun already?
We’re thinking about it. Right now we’re 95% focused on getting [SpaceShipTwo] up and flying and working. But we’ve given it some thought. We think about how the things we’re designing today will lend themselves i future spaceships that’ll be even better.
Now that you’ve done your first powered flight, how long will it be until proper suborbital flights?
Well right now we’re in the test phase. We had our first powered flight [on 29 April 2013], and we need to incrementally increase the altitude and understand the envelope from which this spaceship needs to fly within. That’s going to take some time. We expect that sometime probably in 2014 we hope to get to a point where we will have achieved what we need to achieve in our test programme so that we can start flying some commercial customers. And that’ll be driven by what we see in the test programme, and at the same time in parallel with that we also seek to get our operating licence from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] Having those two things in hand will enable us to start flying commercially.
What makes SpaceShipTwo unique from other space planes currently in production like the Dream Chaser and Lynx?
Well first of all it’s important to differentiate between those that want to go to orbit and those that are suborbital. Today for those that want to go to orbit they’re only being offered essentially for government use, because the costs are still rather high. When we used to fly the Space Shuttle it literally cost a billion dollars every time you flew it. With these newer vehicles the costs will come down to a few hundred million dollars. The only rides you can get today if you want to go into space are with the Russians, and they’re charging NASA $60 or $70 million a seat.
So that’s still quite expensive. When you mention things like Dream Chaser, that’s an orbital vehicle that is being designed really for NASAs use, although I know they have aspirations to fly individuals some day. In the suborbital area, because it doesn’t require the same high energies of getting to orbit, you can come up with a design that doesn’t have to be nearly as exotic in terms of high temperature materials and all that which goes with getting to orbit. And consequently we can say that, although not cheap, it’s certainly a lot less expensive by orders of magnitude by not going to orbit but still getting the opportunity to fly into space. So something like the Lynx that you mentioned, that’s suborbital, so they’re going to do some of what we’re going to do but I think the thing that differentiates them from us is that we’re giving people the opportunity to unbuckle from their seats and float within the cabin and experience both the euphoria of zero-g and looking out the windows and seeing an incredible view. And plus I think we’re offering an overall experience that will make one feel as the astronauts would feel in terms of the training and the flights and the recovery from that. We think we can really replicate what one would feel going up to orbit without nearly the cost of having to do so.
Will you have tourist orbital flights eventually?
Yeah, we hope to. I think we aspire to do that. We’re very excited about what we’re seeing in the rest of the industry. It’s only great news for us when we see companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences trying to do their unmanned missions, I think that’s only good news for us because we hope that as these technologies are developed and competition grows over time that we’ll be in a position one day to start flying people into orbit. You know Bob Bigelow [President of Bigelow Aerospace] is talking about putting up orbital hotels and labs that are privately funded. That to me is kind of the stepping stone that is needed to ultimately get more than just a handful of people that we see today going to orbit, into the hundreds and thousands.
Why has no one done what you’re doing before?
In part because you know it is rocket science, it is something that to get into the business in the past truly did require a government to undertake it. The risks were high, it was the kind of venture that private companies saw as being too much of a hurdle to [invest in]. But I think in the last ten years the technologies have become sort of prevalent enough that individuals see that there’s an opportunity there but it’s still not easy. That’s why you don’t really see dozens of companies [doing this] and most of these companies are funded by high network individuals who sort of see the opportunity, although I argue that’s sort of made the early days of how the aerospace industry were started in much the same way. And I think it’s through demonstrations like we saw through SpaceShipOne that where people thought this was only the province of governments that could do this, someone put out a prize [the X Prize foundation for $10m] and lo and behold you get smart guys like Burt Rutan who thought of it. He comes up with a design called SpaceShipOne and I think it kind of changed the view of everybody, like holy cow we can do this. And I think [SpaceX CEO] Elon Musk and other people sort of followed that route. When Elon managed to get a spaceship [Dragon] to the space station, again that’s another example of people who thought maybe this can be done by the private sector. I personally believe in terms of flying into low-Earth orbit it is within the realm of private investment to achieve that. I think going to the Moon and other things, that’s still tough, and that’s why you still see governments leading the way, although you do hear individuals who are trying to reach further out and pursue that.
What is the biggest challenge faced when building a space plane?
In terms of getting it built, I think it’s actually a couple of things. One is what I mentioned earlier, the reusability. They are not a lot of examples in the space industry of things being reused economically.
I mean the one big example is the Space Shuttle, which was an amazing engineering achievement, but holy cow was it expensive. It needed thousands of people to not only build it but to operate it. So what we’re trying to [build] is something that can also achieve reusability, but that does not quite need the same ‘army’ [of people] to do it. So just like when an aeroplane lands and you check the basics before you turn it around, [we’re aiming for these] sort of airline-like operations. It’s not exactly an airline, so we’re not going to be turning it around in an hour.
It’s going to take more work, but that’s sort of the philosophy of what we’re trying to achieve. And I think the second thing is just from a government standpoint, this is very new for the government to allow [private] entities to operate if you will in space flying. So in many ways we are a pathfinder in terms of the kind of regulatory process that a government needs to go through if you’re going to choose the side of commercial operations.
Why did you choose the feathered re-entry design for SpaceShipTwo?
This dates back of course to SpaceShipOne and Burt Rutan, who’s not only the owner and founder of Scaled Composites [the aerospace company in a partnership with Virgin Galactic that built SpaceShipOne] but really the chief designer and chief engineer. He had for years struggled with how to practically get something into space and bring it back. And one day he just had this epiphany of this motion of what he called the feathering, were you bend the wing in a way that sort of spreads the load and the heat load of the vehicle as it comes back, and it automatically puts the vehicle in an inherently stable configuration for re-entry. It’s something that’s really hard to do for a winged vehicle like ours. But with this so-called feathering technique it enables us to do it. That for him was the breakthrough that enabled SpaceShipOne, and it’s now also been designed for SpaceShipTwo.
Is space tourism going to be one of the big industries in private space travel in the future?
I think it will. I think it’s certainly what’s needed to anchor this new industry. I do think they are going to be future applications, like right now we have a contract with NASA to actually do research on the spaceship to allow principle investigators to fly their payloads and be able to do the kinds of things that [they would] hope to achieve with longer durations on the [International Space Station] but at a fraction of the cost and much more accessible. So I think even with regards to research and science, and even education opportunities, I think it has a terrific opportunity to expand.
Aside from SpaceShipTwo, are you working on anything else at the moment?
We’ve announced plans to build a small launch vehicle [LauncherOne] to take small satellites into orbit as sort of a second product area and I have the responsibility for assembling the team and design that will enable us to do that. It’s very different; the
Isakowitz stands with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which can take six passengers and two pilots into space only thing it has in common with SpaceShipTwo is that both that of them will be using the carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, but in terms of design they’re quite different. [SpaceShipTwo] is going to be reusable and it’s going to carry people. [LauncherOne] is going to be expendable, so every time we go to orbit we’re not bringing it back down so we throw it away each time.
Will space planes eventually become the main method of travel into space?
I think for a while they [space planes and capsules] will be side by side, but as I mentioned earlier the true breakthrough in space travel is reusability.
I think winged vehicles lend themselves to that.
And again I think there are some novel ideas out there. Some people have been trying to vertically land a capsule-shaped vehicle, but that requires a tremendous amount of energy because you have to carry the fuel with you to do that, whereas a winged vehicle takes advantage of the atmosphere itself. So if you can achieve high flight rates a winged vehicle will prove superior over time and is the right way to go. Another thing I would add with interest to winged vehicles, where we might be in the longer term, is point-to-point travel — the idea of flying between two very distant cities but at a fraction of the time that it takes a commercial airline to do it. I think that once we can prove that out on a practical approach to be able to fly from like Tokyo to Los Angeles in half or one third of the time it currently takes will be a huge industry that one could tap in to with some of the very technologies that we’re trying to develop.
When could we expect to see something like that?
I think we’re a bit far off on that. I’d hope that sometime in this decade we will be able to prove out some of the very technologies that’ll be important for that and then start to build up real interest in the industry and actually develop it. I hate to put a date on it at this point, but I think it’s something that we will certainly see practically in our lifetimes.