George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, asks: What is the future of business in space?
We’re at the start of a new industrial revolution in space. The impacts of this revolution will transform business and personal lives back here on Earth, breaking boundaries that have constrained economic and cultural growth since time began. At Virgin Galactic, we’re on a mission to use space commerce as a force for good.
I’ve had a fascination with space since I was a young boy and feel incredibly lucky to be living during a time when technology and human ingenuity have combined to create an unprecedented opportunity to open the doors to space.
Of the more than 100 billion human beings who’ve ever lived on Earth, only 572 have ever been to space. At Virgin Galactic, we are on a mission to increase that number dramatically and in the 10 weeks between December of last year and February of 2019, we made a start by creating five new commercial astronauts during two flights to space. This included four pilots and one our Chief Astronaut Instructor who experienced zero-G float time in the cabin of the spaceship and undertook important cabin evaluations.
We already have approximately 600 people who’ve put down a deposit on a ticket to space on our spaceship, VSS Unity - the first commercial, supersonic winged vehicle designed to take passengers to space. These incredible early adopters represent a new market for space and are fundamental to the establishment of a new era of human spaceflight; one that will see competing technologies and economies of scale push down prices and open up multiple markets, from adventure travel to transcontinental transportation.
Today, the only way a person who isn’t part of a government space program can reach space is by paying tens of millions of dollars to hire a lift aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. After many years of hard work, it now looks certain that thanks to the perseverance and commitment of entrepreneurial teams, a genuine democratisation of human spaceflight is underway with progressively affordable, regularly scheduled, commercial flights.
Longer term, the cost of a personal experience of space will fall substantially, following a similar pattern shown in the field of commercial aviation.
At its start, long-haul aviation was the preserve of the wealthy, but provided the commercial and technological foundations for a transformation which would have been impossible to predict at the time. Today, of course, we see an industry which has connected the world like never before, which has extended unquantifiable social and economic benefits, and which has allowed billions of us to experience the wonder of flight.
These pioneers of the aviation industry enabled many ordinary people to become airborne for the first time and brought new perspectives to worlds which had previously only been experienced at ground level. The early days of commercial spaceflight is expected to follow a similar path in terms of the dynamics of the flights and in the opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds and from across the globe, to look out and back with a fresh perspective.
We know from the accounts of astronauts that the ‘Overview Effect’ is real. These individuals were typically not paid to look out of their spaceships’ windows, but they did, and what they saw affected most of them profoundly for the rest of their lives. Just a glance back at our planet reveals a beautiful and elegantly designed spacecraft that we call Earth. The atmosphere, which protects all life and which appears endless from below, is as thin as the peel of an apple from above; the absence of country borders reinforces that there is more that unites than divides us. The recognition of these essential truths that we believe in, can play a meaningful role to help tackle the most challenging issues we face as a species.
Establishing regular airline-like operations for safe, affordable and commercially viable human spaceflight will open a plethora of markets and applications. As part of a brand synonymous with commercial aviation, we see great opportunities for radical innovation in long haul transcontinental flight. We have been stuck at roughly the same speed, punching through the atmosphere at Mach 0.8 for half a century or more. It’s time to seriously pursue faster and cleaner options to transform journey times and the environmental impact of commercial aviation. What we are building, testing and operating today at Virgin Galactic is feeding the technology and experience required to bring point-to-point, transcontinental space travel to reality. It is no accident that we opted for a winged, piloted, runway take-off and landing design for our first spaceship. It is incredibly important to get the first steps right, and that is our primary focus right now.
In the future, we could see flight times between New York and London cut down by hours, and perhaps ultimately as little as 30 minutes. A recent report by UBS has predicted that flights like this will spark a new $20bn dollar market. Right now, the space industry is worth around $400bn but the report predicts that these innovations will double the value to around $805bn within the next 10 years.
A recent study by the UN assessing the biggest Earth-based challenges estimated that 70 per cent had a space-based solution and that just about all of them could be measured and monitored from space. Satellite based technologies will help countries build climate resilience, provide data to ensure water and food security, and monitor and predict climate refugees. They will help give more people from remote places access to high speed internet speeding social and economic reform.
It’s without doubt that the commercial space industry is experiencing a giant wave of innovation. This new space economy of 2030 has the potential to not only help foster modernisation across multiple industries, but also to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. It’s possibly the best time in history to be working in this industry and I’m excited Virgin Galactic will be playing its part in helping to shift the way we view our planet.
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