Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q500 Adam Afriyie: How many British
people have signed up?
Mr Whitehorn: About 35 British
Q501 Adam Afriyie: Any Members of
Mr Whitehorn: Not yet. Lembit
is obviously very keen to go and see if there are any asteroids
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.