Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 494 - 499)



  Q494  Chairman: We bring our third panel of witnesses to this Science and Technology Committee space inquiry. Welcome Will Whitehorn, the President of Virgin Galactic, Dr Patrick Collins, the Director of Space Future Consulting and Mr Jeff Gazzard, a Board Member of Aviation Environment Federation. I must confess, gentlemen, this is a session for which I have been waiting for a long time. It is customary for our Committee to have interesting visits and we did feel that it would be good publicity for each of the members of the Committee to be given a ride in Virgin Galactic! With those remarks, I will ask my colleague, Mr Newmark, to begin the questions.

  Q495  Mr Newmark: Is space tourism science fiction or science fact? Where do you think we will be 10 years from now?

  Mr Whitehorn: It is worth saying that space tourism was perceived to be science fact back in the 1970s after the Apollo missions when the Shuttle programme began. Many in Congress believed at that time that the Shuttle programme was going to become so regularised that you would be able to use it for commercial purposes. To my mind the entire concept of the Shuttle programme was flawed in its essence. It was using a technology which had been adapted from the military technology of rocketry of the 1950s to get man to the moon quickly and it did not think about some of the aspects of regularising space flight in the future.

  Q496  Mr Newmark: When you say space flight, you mean suborbital or space flight in general?

  Mr Whitehorn: I mean both: suborbital and beyond the earth's orbit. One of the exciting things that has happened is, since the Challenger accident and the subsequent accidents to Shuttle where the public began to believe that space flight of the type that we are talking about today was science fiction, we have rapidly moved in the last three and a half years back to science fact again. The X Prize was fundamentally important to the future of space flight. It proved that a man called Burt Rutan, funded by Paul Allen, for US$30 million could put two people into space in the space of two weeks with a reusable vehicle which came back with minimal environmental exposure of the planet to the effects of that space flight. It was a very, very dramatic event.

  Q497  Mr Newmark: So no airline passenger duty from the Chancellor.

  Mr Whitehorn: Exactly, that was one of the nice things, and no bilateral problems with the US government over rights to operate in the United States because we only went to the same place as we came back from. The reality of what happened with that project has created Virgin Galactic. What we are looking at at the moment is we are three quarters of the way through the construction project to build SpaceShip Two. This is a unique system. It is using some of the most advanced materials technology in the world, an all carbon composite aircraft which is incredibly efficient and going to be a showcase for both Airbus and Boeing, since neither are capable of building an all carbon composite glider at the moment the size of what we are building. The spacecraft itself is again all carbon composite, has a new design and a very safe hybrid rocket motor which is again unique technology that has been developed for this project. It has something called a feathering device which allows a care-free re-entry back into the earth's atmosphere which has never been done before. You do not have to try and fly a flight profile back in, you can bring your passengers in safely floating down a shuttlecock and then you turn it back into a glider to land. The unique thing about this space launch system is it can not only get six people into space for an environmental effect less than a single business class ticket to New York compared with the Shuttle which takes that number of people into space for the same environmental output of the entire city of New York and its industry for nearly a week. This is really a dramatic breakthrough. The exciting thing about it is not just space tourism, not the fact it is inspiring people, not the fact that over 15,000 kids in the last five days have been through the Science Museum and sat in our mock-up of the interior and been inspired by it, not the fact that 100,000 kids in Britain alone sent emails to Virgin Galactic wanting information about what we are doing, not the fact we believe we can make a profitable business out of space tourists to start with, not the fact that we are not being funded by any government to make this $200 million investment, but the really exciting thing is this system is capable of doing science and payload in space. It is capable cheaply of doing microgravity experiments. It is capable of having a launcher attached to it, apart from the SpaceShip Two launcher we are designing at the moment, which could launch space satellites into orbit.

  Q498  Mr Newmark: Great sales pitch.

  Mr Whitehorn: It is not a sales pitch; it happens to be the reality of what we are doing.

  Q499  Mr Newmark: There is a difference in the cost between taking a suborbital trip, an orbital trip and going out into space. Secondly, there is a certain amount of training involved. I know that when people go out in space they need to go through far more rigorous training, which is expensive. I know a guy who has done it and spent six months in Russia as opposed to your two-day training course where you go up on your ships and everything is fine. Is it really going to be that simple? I want you to differentiate between orbital, suborbital and going out to space with what you are proposing, and also the cost. Clearly the first guys up cost a lot of money so there is a learning curve and a costs curve that come down over time. If Adam and I decide to pay you £100,000 or £170,000, or whatever it is going to be, to take the first trips up next year, in 10 years time, if we decide to send our teenage children up there how is the cost going to come down with that?

  Mr Whitehorn: First of all, the cost for the early flights is $200,000, around £100,000, and we have 200 people who have paid that deposit and signed up, which is about so far 10% of the investment we are making in building the system. It has been very gratifying they have done that.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007