“The things we’re designing today will lend themselves to future spaceships that’ll be even better,” says the President of Virgin Galactic

We spoke to Steve Isakowitz about the work this pioneering private space company is doing, and what we can expect in the future.

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WKT and SSO Credit Virgin Galactic

Isakowitz headshot

Why are space planes like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo important for space exploration?

“Well I think it’s going after one of the toughest problems in space exploration, which is that if you’re ultimately going to reduce the cost of getting people into space, one needs to demonstrate a routine ability to reuse hardware and to fly things over and over. [Space travel is] really the only transportation mode, whether it’s submarines, ships, cars or planes, where we throw everything away every time we fly. And until we demonstrate the ability to reuse the hardware we’ll never get the cost down to where it’s affordable for anybody, whether it’s governments or individuals, to be able to fly into space.

“What we’re trying to achieve at Virgin Galactic is the ability to fly into these suborbital flights, bring down the hardware, turn it around quickly and re-fly it over and over again. It’s a necessary first step to prove the ultimate economics of space travel.”

How long will it be until your first proper suborbital flights of SpaceShipTwo?

“Well right now we’re in the test phase. We had our first powered flight [on 29 April 2013], and we need to incrementally increase the altitude and understand the envelope from which this spaceship needs to fly within. That’s going to take some time. We expect that sometime probably in 2014 we hope to get to a point where we will have achieved what we need to achieve in our test programme so that we can start flying some commercial customers. And that’ll be driven by again what we see in the test programme, and at the same time in parallel with that we also seek to get our operating licence from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. Having those two things in hand will enable us to start flying commercially.”

Has work on SpaceShipTwo’s successor, SpaceShipThree, begun already?

“We’re thinking about it. Right now we’re 95% focused on getting [SpaceShipTwo] up and flying and working. But we’ve given it some thought. We think about how the things we’re designing today will lend themselves to future spaceships that’ll be even better.”

SpaceShipTwo successfully tested its rocket engine for the first time on 29 April 2013. Image credit: MarsScientific.com / Clay Center Observatory
SpaceShipTwo successfully tested its rocket engine for the first time on 29 April 2013. Image credit: MarsScientific.com / Clay Center Observatory

Why has no one done what you’re doing before?

“In part because you know it is rocket science, it is something that to get into the business in the past truly did require a government to undertake it. The risks were high, it was the kind of venture that private companies saw as being too much of a hurdle to [invest in]. But I think in the last ten years the technologies have become sort of prevalent enough that individuals see that there’s an opportunity there but it’s still not easy. That’s why you don’t really see dozens of companies [doing this] and most of these companies are funded by high network individuals who sort of see the opportunity, although I argue that the aerospace industry was started in much the same way.

“I think it’s through demonstrations like we saw through SpaceShipOne that where people thought this was only the province of governments that could do this, someone put out a prize [the X Prize foundation for $10m] and lo and behold you get smart guys like Burt Rutan who thought of it. He comes up with a design called SpaceShipOne and I think it kind of changed the view of everybody, like holy cow we can do this. And I think [SpaceX CEO] Elon Musk and other people sort of followed that route. When Elon managed to get a spaceship [Dragon] to the space station, again that’s another example of people who thought maybe this can be done by the private sector. I personally believe in terms of flying into low Earth orbit it is within the realm of private investment to achieve that. I think going to the Moon and other things, that’s still tough, and that’s why you still see governments leading the way, although you do hear individuals who are trying to reach further out and pursue that.”

Is space tourism going to be one of the big sectors in the private space travel industry in the future?

“I think it will. I think it’s certainly what’s needed to anchor this new industry. I do think there are going to be future applications, like right now we have a contract with NASA to actually do research on the spaceship to allow principle investigators to fly their payloads and be able to do the kinds of things that [they would] hope to achieve with longer durations on the [International Space Station] but at a fraction of the cost and much more accessible. So I think even with regards to research and science, and even education opportunities, I think it has a terrific opportunity to expand.”

Will space planes eventually become the main method of travel into space?

“I think for a while they [space planes and capsules] will be side by side, but as I mentioned earlier the true breakthrough in space travel is reusability. I think winged vehicles lend themselves to that. And again I think there are some novel ideas out there. Some people have been trying to vertically land a capsule shaped vehicle, but that requires a tremendous amount of energy because you have to carry the fuel with you to do that, whereas a winged vehicle takes advantage of the atmosphere itself. So if you can achieve high flight rates a winged vehicle will prove superior over time and is the right way to go. Another thing I would add with interest to winged vehicles, where we might be in the longer term, is point to point travel – the idea of flying between two very distant cities but at a fraction of the time that it takes a commercial airline to do it. I think that once we can prove that out on a practical approach, to be able to fly from like Tokyo to Los Angeles in half or a third of the time it currently takes will be a huge industry that one could tap in to with some of the very technologies we’re trying to develop.”

When could we expect to see something like that?

“I think we’re a bit far off on that. I’d hope that sometime in this decade we will be able to prove out some of the very technologies that’ll be important for that and then start to build up real interest in the industry and actually develop it. I hate to put a date on it at this point, but I think it’s something that we will certainly see practically in our lifetimes.”

Steve Isakowitz was speaking to Jonathan (@Astro_Jonny) for All About Space issue 16, where you can read the rest of the interview.

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