Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)



  Q500  Adam Afriyie: How many British people have signed up?

  Mr Whitehorn: About 35 British people.

  Q501  Adam Afriyie: Any Members of Parliament?

  Mr Whitehorn: Not yet. Lembit is obviously very keen to go and see if there are any asteroids out there.

  Q502  Chairman: There are very few Conservative MPs who can afford it!

  Mr Whitehorn: For anyone who is really unpopular we can arrange one-way trips potentially! The reality is that our business plan at the moment, provided that the investment programme goes ahead as it is going at the moment, and we are so far into the programme we are very confident on the numbers, we believe that within five years we can get the costs down to between $75,000 and eventually, maybe after nine years, $50,000, which is £25,000. That will allow people to get up into space with three days' training and see the planet Earth. They will not stay there very long, they will only experience weightlessness for a few minutes, but the most important thing about the experience is they will understand this planet a lot better for doing it. It will, as a project, regularise and give the public an understanding of the fact that space is not a devolved place from us; it is only an extension of where we are now. The reality of the atmosphere is to some extent it goes out tens of thousands of miles, and some could argue right out to the Lagrange point to the Sun. We tend to the think of the planet as being this bubble that we live in and space is something that is uninhabitable and out there. Of course what has happened with the culture of space since the accident in 1985 is people have begun to believe that actually robots can do everything in space that needs to be done and man does not need to go there. I fundamentally do not agree with that. I do not draw a delineation between a suborbital programme, an orbital programme and a leaving the earth's atmosphere programme. The exciting thing about our technology is that it can be evolved very quickly into a very, very low cost orbital system to either launch payload and science into orbit, and eventually take people into orbit, at costs well below today. The most important thing of all is by using an air launch system, by carrying our spacecraft above the atmosphere to 60,000 feet and launching it there, we can avoid almost all the environment impact of the current space launch systems which are based on 1950s technology. I do not see a delineation between proving suborbital and moving forward.

  Q503  Mr Newmark: I would like to ask both of you, is he in cloud cuckoo land or is he being realistic? What are the risks you see associated with what Will is saying? What are the benefits? Can we really develop a space tourism industry and how will it benefit the UK?

  Mr Gazzard: It would be inappropriate for me to say that any branch of the Virgin empire is living in cloud cuckoo land. Will has done a great sales pitch and you sit here in admiration for that. The facts are that what he has told us is what the environmental impact of this project is not but he has not quite told us what it is. It is not as big as a weeks' output of New York City, it is not self-evidently as big as a Saturn 5 with a space exploration project on top of it, and I accept that. We have had said in our short submission that the impact of these launch systems, as they are currently proposed, is pretty minimal and it would be stupid to say otherwise. Self-evidently they are only licensed, such as the licensing is, for use in the States. We submitted some evidence about the passenger legislation and Federal Aviation and space transportation requirements, you have covered that in your statement about a couple of days training. These people are not astronauts; this is not science. This is, as Mr Whitehorn said, the play thing of people like Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. Interestingly one of the areas of the media that gets most coverage for these projects is Microsoft's own news network. I know Paul Allen is not involved any more but you can see these links. They are not intergalactic, that is self-evident. We did describe this, after some thought, as a play thing of millionaires and that is probably our view. Although if it does get down to the kind of level of which even Liberal Democrat MPs can afford it obviously we would have to have a look at that. What we are talking about here is a kind of Virgin Galactic with a bit of technology attached to it. It is not true to say that the technology, for instance, of carbon fibre structures in aerospace is being led by this project. I have not been to Seattle but I have met senior people from Boeing. I have been to Toulouse on several occasions in the last year discussing all of the ways in which air frames can be built more efficiently, the thing we are concerned about, the space exploration, a different subject, and the technology transfer back into commercial aerospace. Even we are interested in more efficient aircraft. If you saw what they were doing with structures you would understand that it is the commercial aerospace and, in fact, the Formula One industry that is having as much impact on the kind of technology that Virgin Galactic would be using as what they are doing themselves. Having said that, this is a small enterprise and it is quite interesting technologically. There is no doubt that if it does get off the ground, aeronautical pun intended, it will have some environmental impact but that will be quite limited. What concerns us is the third party and societal risk elements of this and that they are promoted and not just the environmental impact assessment which we said we want to see listed and publicised so we do know what it is rather than what it is not. The thing that does concern us is the third party risk on society or indeed the individual risks.

  Q504  Chairman: We will return to that.

  Mr Gazzard: I listened very carefully to Will Whitehorn's projections. This is a small potential business even over 10 or fifteen years. At that level, providing that the environmental impact assessment of launch sites and material and the safety aspects are thoroughly considered and publicised, then God bless all who want to fly.

  Q505  Mr Newmark: Basically what you are saying is it is a rich man's or rich lady's game, something they can talk about over a bottle of Petrus at a dinner party.

  Mr Gazzard: It is worse than that. It is a bit like multimillionaires outbidding each other at a charity dinner as to who is going to have the signed football.

  Dr Collins: Is space tourism science fact? It can easily become fact. I disagree with the idea that it has to remain expensive. There has been a lot of talk today about how expensive it is to get to space. We are used to this idea. What most people do not seem to realise is how very extraordinary it is that launch costs today are exactly the same as they were 50 years ago. I call space agencies anti-space travel agencies because they spend colossal amounts of money, over a trillion dollars so far, but never in a way to making getting into space cheaper. The cheapest way to get into space is the Soyuz, which was the first ever rocket that ever launched a satellite. To give an example about how easy it can be to make getting into space cheaper, this is a picture of the SR53, a British supersonic rocket plane which flew in Britain 50 years ago this May. There is a British company, Bristol Spaceplanes, which has a design of a passenger space plane, drawing very much on that technology, which could make suborbital flights at a cost of £3,000 a head. There is simply no difficulty at all. The technology was already there 50 years ago, and materials and so on have advanced a great deal since then.

  Q506  Chairman: Do you have any evidence to support that claim? That is the most astounding claim you have just made, that you could do it for that sort of cost.

  Dr Collins: This vehicle is in the RAF Museum and it flew on 15 May 1957 and flew supersonic in 1958. It was a military plane.

  Q507  Dr Spink: Do you have a report or analysis that enables you to arrive at the £3,000 per head? There will be something I am sure.

  Dr Collins: That is right.

  Q508  Dr Spink: Could you send it to us?

  Dr Collins: I will do that. This was intended as an interceptor for Russian planes. In fact missiles were much better so they did not develop a higher altitude version, but suborbital space flight is that straight forward so it could have been started as a passenger business in the 1960s. There is no doubt about that. Going from suborbital to orbital is a big step; it is from 3 or 4 March up to 26 Mach so it is a big step and requires a much bigger investment. Based on a successful business like this, it would be quite a logical and low risk investment. I am a great fan of Virgin, they are doing terrific work, but if no governments were to make any effort and it was just left to Virgin it is still going to take a long time to get to orbit, but for a tiny investment and a modern version of this for £50 million, a one-off investment, in three years you would have a prototype which would be flying, within five years it could be certified for carrying passengers, and within 10 years it would be down to £3,000 a head. Suborbital flight is a very straight forward low cost investment. One of my frustrations, as someone who has been aware of this for a long time, is the absolute refusal of the BNSC to even comment on the subject. As I mentioned in my submission, in 2000 the Trade and Industry Committee referred to this. It pointed out that satellite investment is not profitable in an ordinary sense. It has all sorts of spin-off effects which are excellent and they do not want to stop it but it is not satisfactory as a commercial business and urged them to do something about looking to space tourism. What it means is low cost space travel which is the secret to allowing everything to happen in space but the BNSC and the then Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, have simply refused to say anything in eight years.

  Q509  Adam Afriyie: Why do you think they have refused to say anything?

  Dr Collins: I think it is partly what I call space agency disease, which is that space agencies are not interested in space travel.

  Q510  Chairman: We do not have a space agency?

  Dr Collins: That is right but NASA and ESA and other space agencies do not do anything to make space travel cheaper; they never have and they are not now. They are not planning anything like that in the future which is why the SpaceShip One flight was so very important. By the way, even by BNSC's budget it would only be three or four weeks of its budget to build SpaceShip One.

  Q511  Chairman: To be fair, and for the record, BNSC recently did sponsor a major conference on space tourism in the UK. It is unfair to say they are not doing anything and are not interested.

  Dr Collins: I spoke at that conference and it is true they lent us the DTI conference facility, which was excellent.

  Q512  Chairman: I was just making the point because you said they are not doing anything and I wanted to rectify that.

  Dr Collins: In the eight years of the previous Minister's tenure they turned down applications to work in this area every year except for one after SpaceShip One had flown.

  Chairman: I was just trying to correct the record.

  Q513  Adam Afriyie: Will, Dr Collins, and possibly Jeff, is insurance a barrier to space tourism and can you say just a very few words on how you see that issue? Following on from that, can many of the experiments that are done in orbit outside the earth's atmosphere be done within orbit? We only have a few moments.

  Mr Whitehorn: Insurance is not a barrier; it is a big opportunity for the UK. Already Lloyd's market insures almost all the world's satellites and almost all the world's space equipment. Space tourism is a big opportunity. There are going to be issues with early insurance for the first 100 or 200 fights. We are going to have to sign a waiver under the US government regulations. The US has legislation in place, to answer Jeff Gazzard's point, which will mean we have to publish the environmental appraisal of the vehicle. We have to give a full acknowledgement of all third party risk. Can I say fundamentally that Jeff Gazzard, much as I respect him, is utterly wrong in what he said about space tourism and this system. NASA last night at midnight signed a co-operation agreement with Virgin Galactic to develop this technology for science and payload in space because NASA, who have signed an agreement with us, believe fundamentally. They are now lending us people to work on the project with us, including some of their most respected scientists, and under the agreement they are also going to buy seats on Virgin Galactic for early parts of astronaut training. They believe in the science and technology of it and who I am to question that. When it comes to the very long-term question about suborbit versus orbital, which I did not get around to answering properly, this system which makes it different from the Bristol Spaceplane, is we are talking about an air launch system here with a unique aircraft that can then launch orbital payload into space. Jeff Gazzard is also wrong in saying that the technology we are using in composites is not that advanced. In fact, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites is the world's most advanced composite manufacturer and he has taught everybody what they know about the subject. He designs parts for some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. His company is partnered by Northrop Grumman, who are the company building this for us, and it is at the cutting edge of technology at the moment.

  Dr Collins: Can I say something about the insurance? Space travel is a very straight forward extension of air travel. It is much better to see it in that sense rather than as something from space agencies. We see this clearly in the States where NASA has nothing to do with the space travel industry that is developing now, it is the FAA who is leading that. The FAA is extremely keen that it should grow because for the FAA it is a whole new field. That is a structural thing that would be very good to look at in Britain. The CAA might be given a budget to get this to happen because the space community, the gentlemen this morning, are excellent space scientists but they are a quite different world from air travel. We have this word aerospace but they are two quite separate fields, aero and space. BNSC in their submission do not even use the word, ie space tourism, they do not discuss this subject at all, yet it is now recognised this is probably the most promising new field in space. Getting the aviation industry to look at this as a growth of aviation and overlapping with space may be a way to get around this blockage of lack of funding by space agencies.

  Mr Gazzard: I do not even have a dramatic five to midnight last night story but what I would say, very briefly, apart from being slightly flippant, I feel like I am in the pages of The Eagle here. The point about insurance is you can insure almost anything if you are prepared to pay a high enough premium. The premium for a space flight as a commercial space agency is between 20 and 25% of the launch and payload costs which is significant money. The second point about composites, I know the background of the people who are involved in this project and they are cutting edge world leaders but that is not the same as saying this project is a cutting edge world leader in terms of autoclaves and carbon fibre weave and weft and all the rest of it. If you talk to the manufacturing people at Airbus and Boeing, they are as advanced as anybody on these issues.

  Mr Whitehorn: That is not true.

  Q514  Chairman: You can fight outside. I Chair this committee, I am not a referee. I do not want to go there and I think you have made the points about that. Just before we finish this session, Will, you said that the commercial launch system could alleviate pressure on government regarding human space flight and there would be avenues of involvement. Very, very briefly those avenues of involvement, this thing that you talked about last night in terms of scientific pay-off, what were they?

  Mr Whitehorn: And commercial pay-off. We are talking to people like Surrey Satellites at the moment, QinetiQ and Astrium and they are fascinated by this system. They realise this system is cutting edge and what it can be applied to now in terms of lowering the cost of getting payload into lower earth orbit is quite dramatic. I would say we are five or six years away from that. We have to prove this systems works over the next 18 months. We have to get our licence from the FAA to start flying. We have to fly people in space first because they are the first available market. This so-called rich person's toy, most of the people who going up on this system in the early part of its use are scientists who can luckily for them afford to go up on it because they are fascinated by the system and understand its ramifications. One of our launch customers is Professor Stephen Hawking and I do not regard him as just a rich kid with a play thing.

  Q515  Chairman: No, and we will leave Stephen Hawking to another day. In terms of this involvement, you would see your system delivering payloads, in other words, you would use it as a launcher system.

  Mr Whitehorn: Yes. That is what we wish to develop it into because that is where the real market long term will lie for it.

  Q516  Mr Newmark: Richard Branson is one of the great entrepreneurs of my generation and I think it is great he is doing this and, as a venture capitalist, which both of us are, it is great that you are not relying on government at all to do this. I was being a bit facetious before. Do you see any role for government to help support what you are doing or should it just be purely a private enterprise?

  Mr Whitehorn: I see a great role for government in the UK in space but we will leave that aside for the moment. The role for government in our project is quite simple. We need to have a legislative background in the UK which would allow this type of commercial flight to take place here or we will lose a massive opportunity. Already the US government has passed a new Act to allow us to fly, the Commercialization of Space Amendment Act 2004. It has set up a branch of the FAA to license this system because they realise this is not like an aircraft but it is like a aircraft. It is crossing that barrier we were talking about with aerospace. The Swedish government has signed an MOU with us to develop a methodology to allow us to fly from Sweden from the Kiruna space base up in the north of Sweden. In the UK I have been to see the RAF. Lossiemouth is an ideal location to operate early flights from the UK or St Mawgan down in Cornwall. We are going to approach the MoD as soon as we are at the next stage with the FAA, who will give them the full breakdown on what we are allowed to do under IATA rules. We would like to operate here but at the moment there is no body and no locus to allow us to do it.

  Q517  Mr Newmark: It is not a cash issue for you but government facilitating your ability to get on and develop your business as you would like.

  Mr Whitehorn: I believe the government needs to set up, and this group should look at this, how do you enable commercial space flight to happen from the UK with systems for which there is no understanding at the moment, which are neither ground-based rocketry nor traditionally aircraft going into space. It would be a really important thing for the Committee to look at.

  Chairman: We take seriously the point you have made.

  Q518  Chris Mole: Do any of you believe there is a role for the UK government in providing financial incentives for the development of the space tourism industry and what incentives should they be?

  Dr Collins: Yes, very much indeed. If the DTI is sincere in saying they wish to encourage the maximum commercial development of space, which is what it is, they should invest in this because it is a much, much bigger matter than just Virgin Galactic. The fact that a British company wants to buy some Boeing vehicles does not mean that Europe should not set up Airbus. The idea that if they are allowed to bring the American vehicle over to Europe and fly it then that is enough and Britain should not do anything is crazy. In the DTI's report they just refer to this in a few lines where they say they are going to lead by regulating. This is simply nonsense. This refusal to speak about it, which all space agencies and near space agencies have, they should be obliged to make a cost benefit analysis or a feasibility study. People have been requesting funds for a feasibility study for 15 years and they turn them down every year. Now SpaceShip One has flown and proved the case that for a tiny investment you can make a passenger vehicle. The British aerospace manufacturing industry is in urgent need of new projects. It does the Airbus wings and it does military stuff but nothing much else. Talking to the guys they are saying "What is next?" This is an absolutely ideal area, one where Britain specifically has already a great deal of expertise. I am not saying we do not need new legislation, we do, but it is not so very strange because this vehicle was flying 50 years ago. Rocket planes are nothing new at all and the CAA has handled it before.

  Mr Whitehorn: I beg to differ. The CCA has not handled that; that was a military plane. It did not have any CAA involvement at all and that is one of the issues we need to address.

  Q519  Chris Mole: What challenges would Virgin Galactic face if it wanted to build a space port in the UK?

  Mr Whitehorn: Very few challenges in the logistical sense. The biggest challenge here is the weather in the UK for taking off an air launch system. We believe we could operate in summer out of Lossiemouth because it already has all the right elements. We do not need a space port that has ground-based rocketry, we need a very long runway and Lossiemouth has that. It also has cleared military airspace in the Moray Firth so our re-entry would not interfere with any commercial aircraft. All the elements are already there. At very low cost we could develop a space tourism business here for summer operation. I think that would be a great thing for the UK to participate in. Already you have countries like Sweden which moved very quickly on this. Dubai is trying to get into this act very quickly. I think the UK needs to and we need to look at some enabling legislation through Parliament to make sure that we can do what we do, otherwise we will have to do it under a military licence through the MoD in some way and that would be a shame for a project like this. Enabling legislation is the main thing needed because the space port facilities for the type of system we have exist at a number of RAF bases in places where they already have cleared airspace at the extremes of the UK, in the far west of Cornwall and up in the far north of Scotland.

  Mr Gazzard: Could I make a quick point about government policy and intervention. Dr Collins has mentioned that the British National Space Council is now in the middle of a consultation document, I think it is about forty pages, and does not have any mention of space tourism anywhere in it. Despite the fact they have had a day's conference on it, there is their consultation document that is a pretty well written document with a middle, beginning and an end. It speaks in virtuous terms about the scientific possibilities of space exploration, as indeed we do in the early part of our evidence, but there is not a single mention of space tourism. Just in passing, the word "environment" is mentioned 25 times in the document but never in terms of any policy or impact at all.

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