Examination of Witnesses (Questions 494
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
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
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
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.