Blast Off: Virgin Galactic
The future is here.
Once upon a time, space travel only existed in science fiction novels. Then when NASA arose, space travel became a reality, but only for a select few astronauts and an agency funded by the government. A couple decades ago, private citizens could never have imagined flying into space. Now, the future is here. And we may not fully understand the benefits for years to come.
Commercialized space travel has become a reality with the rise of private companies. Virgin Galactic, one of the largest commercial spaceflight companies, is a British company founded by Richard Branson. The company has an official plan to provide space tourism, launches for space missions, and launches for satellites. But the possible applications of commercialized space organizations are impossible to predict; Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz believes the space revolution is only just beginning.
“The history of every successful industry has required the ingenuity of the private sector to open the frontier, expand the markets, drive down costs, and find new products and services to meet needs and enhance returns on investment,” said Isakowitz, who earned a masters in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “It is time for space to see that revolution. It is time for the many to participate, not just the anointed few.”
While it is still a fledgling field, commercialized space travel has already provided benefits to the United States. John McBrine, Chief Engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston, has already seen NASA use private companies like Virgin Galactic. When the United States government retired the Space Shuttle, it had to rely on Russian shuttles to resupply the International Space Station. But now, NASA has contracts with domestic private space companies.
“We were relying strictly on the Russians at first,” McBrine said. “But now we have these two commercialized companies that can help us resupply the space station. This is great because it’s cheaper, and we can now rely on the US instead of Russia. We are now relying on US-built, US-launched vehicles to supply the space station.”
The ability to contract private companies is a big development for NASA because of apprehension over reliance on Russia, a country with which the US has recently butted heads. Previously, McBrine was the director of NASA’s operations in Russia, working in the NASA-Mir Program; so, he has had close experience working with the Russians.
Decades ago the space race changed the world for ever. Now, private companies like Virgin Galactic are revolutionizing the space industry. They’re just getting started.
“A lot of people had a problem that we were dependent on the Russians to take us to the space station, and with all the political problems with Russia and Ukraine, there’s been a feeling that the Russians at anytime could stop their obligation to send us to the space station,” McBrine said. “Dealing with countries internationally is very hard and complicated, so if NASA can not worry about that because of these commercialized companies, that is huge.”
McBrine hopes to continue working with private companies in order to make progress in Space. He wants to get these commercialized companies to develop capsules that will send humans—US crewmembers—to the International Space Station. This will further free NASA to pursue new projects.
For Isakowitz, the future is unclear, and that is exactly what makes it so exciting. Isakowitz has been able to see the progression in Space Travel through his experiences in various positions. He was the Deputy Associate Administrator of NASA, from 2002 to 2005, and in 2007, he was appointed as the United States Department of Energy Chief Financial Officer by President George W. Bush.
So then, with private contracts already established and more to come, and space tourism on the horizon, what is the next step for Commercialized Space Travel? Although the times have changed, the goal remains the same—to innovate.
“We are on the frontier,” Isakowitz said. “Right now the immediate future is commercial suborbital flights for people who want to live the dream of going to space and can afford the ticket, but in the future who knows what it will be? Computers and cell phones started out for the few early adopters, and now they have revolutionized life for us all. The way we communicate, work, play, live, think, everything. I don’t know exactly what the future of the commercialization of space travel will look like. But I am optimistic. As in any new frontier, it promises to be very bright.”
McBrine agrees with Isakowitz. In many new fields, technological progress is made before the commercial application is fully developed. The field of Commercialized Space Travel is only in its infant stages, so the possibilities are infinite. As more bright minds join the field, the applications could go in any direction.
“It’s all evolution—it’s like how airplanes evolved,” McBrine said. “First, they were a military support function, then they went commercial, and now you see private people all over the world with their own planes. NASA was originally largely run by the military, but now it is kind of transferring to a civilian organization, and now you’re going to see commercial private companies emerge using the technology NASA has developed, and we can apply it to commercial ventures.”
I don’t know exactly what the future of commercialization of space travel will look like. But I am optimistic. As in any new frontier, it promises to be very bright.
The most common commercial application that is in the news today is that of Space Tourism. Many notable celebrities have already bought tickets on the first Virgin Galactic suborbital flight. But McBrine expects these private companies to expand much farther than only Space Tourism.
“These companies could create their own space stations,” McBrine said. “These companies could be taxis that take tourists to space stations. There are all sorts of implications for commercialized space travel. There is tourism, resupply, but also satellite deployment, repair, repair of telescopes like Hubble. NASA had to go back to Hubble three or four times to repair it, but nowadays we could use private companies to do that. o the implications are very significant.”
While the progress has been swift and the future is optimistic, the path has not been without obstacles. Virgin Galactic recently endured a setback when VSS Enterprise, a Virgin Galactic vehicle, crashed in the Mojave Desert while performing a test flight. The co-pilot was killed and the pilot was seriously injured. Isakowitz is still saddened by the tragedy, but he knows the company can overcome it.
“The investigation is ongoing, and we are going to get to the bottom of it,” Isakowitz said. “It certainly was a horrible day, but we will find the problem, fix it, and fly again— safer and successfully.”
Isakowitz was disappointed, but he knows that the tragedy does not mean Commercialized Space Travel will not achieve its goals. He knows that anytime a company is on the cutting edge, the frontier, there will be setbacks.
“Just look at the early days of aviation, the challenges it faced, and now it’s the safest mode of transportation,” Isakowitz said. “When you’re doing something that’s never been done before, there are going to be obstacles you have to overcome.”
Even with all the press it has received, the industry of Commercialized Space Travel is still very small. Since it is so new, not that many people are involved yet. Progress can be even faster once more bright, passionate minds and more entrepreneurs become involved. Isakowitz sees this as inevitable since so many people are fascinated with Space.
“I think it is a very natural interest, one that everyone has had at some point—just wondering, what’s out there? Just thinking about how vast space is and how little we know and understand it,” Isakowitz said.
In addition to the vast natural curiosity for Space, Isakowitz thinks the field will grow because it is always changing. On the frontier, there is no routine. People who are involved in the field will be constantly on the cutting edge. This excitement will inevitably lead to new members in the field.
“There really is no typical day,” Isakowitz said. “Sometimes we’ll be reviewing a test launch, brainstorming on new products, competing to hire the best and brightest, explaining ourselves to potential customers, the media, and the public. It changes a lot, and that’s part of what makes it so captivating and fun.”
It is the perfect time to get involved in Commercialized Space Travel. Originally, Space Travel was very restricted. Whereas it used to be you had to try to become and astronaut or go into the government to be involved, now it is more open.
“There are many different routes you can go,” Isakowitz said. “I think that’s a great thing.”
Progress has already been made, and more is sure to come. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved now and everyone who will be in the future. In the end, our world may never be the same.
“I’d like to say to students who are interested in this field, it is a great time to get into the space business,” Isakowitz said. “We need innovators, entrepreneurs, engineers, project managers, investors, marketers, planners, and dreamers.”