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BW Businessworld

'We Don’t Set Dates; We Set Milestones'

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There are eight Indians among the 400 people who have spent $200,000 each to book a seat on a two-hour flight to space and back, provided UK billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic succeeds in the last leg of its $400-million venture to become the world's first private space travel company. The company is going to test its third and most critical component of the space flight — the propulsion system. The design is based on American Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan's plan of having a mother ship, a spaceship and a propulsion system. Success will validate Rutan's revolu-tionary technology and open the doors for the cheapest tickets to space. BW's Rajeev Dubey spoke to Stephen Attenborough, CEO of Virgin Galactic, on the ifs, whys and whens of the venture.

Excerpts:

When will we see the first human going on a private space flight?
SpaceShipTwo's system consists of the aircraft and the spaceship itself; both these are flying now. We also have the propulsion system, which is being ground tested. The big aircraft has finished its test flights and it has performed flawlessly. The spaceship is at the glide flight path of its programme because it is a reusable vehicle. We will probably have 5-6 glide flights. Then, later this year, we expect to test the rocket launcher for the first time. As soon as the propulsion tests start, provided the first couple of tests go well, we will undertake the first space flight.

I am hopeful (it will be) this year or early next year. We will undertake a series of space flights until we know everything we need to know. At the same time, we will be getting the regulatory clearances. Once that is complete, we start commercial service. We are on the final stretch. Richard (Branson) can't wait to fly; he will be on the first commercial flight.

What is the target date?
The big moment this year will be the first propulsion test when, for the first time, the rocket will power the spaceship. We don't set target dates; we set milestones. You are completely dependent on the data that comes out from the space flight to determine what the next milestone would be.

What will be the cost of a flight?
We have not disclosed the cost but what we are sure about is that it is $1.2 million a flight in revenue. We should be profitable in the first year on an operational basis. (The) payback will take longer. We have taken considerable risk and there is definitely premium for being first. We have no problem with getting reservations for $200,000, although we would like to bring prices down. We have over 400 people who have pre-ordered an early seat with $55 million in deposits. Most people want to fly as early as possible; they pay $200,000 upfront. If you want to fly in an auction, you pay $20,000. Probably 300 of the 400 would be early fliers.

How long will the flight be?
From takeoff to touchdown, it is two hours of intense sensory experience. Two days before, you have to undergo training and preparation at Spaceport America, which is all included in the price. In the first part, you will be taken up to 50,000 feet and released. Then, once the SpaceShip rocket starts, you reach the speed of sound in less than 10 seconds and keep accelerating up to almost four times that in under half-a-minute. You will be going vertical and the sky outside will turn from blue to total black. It will be exhilarating. It will take your breath away. And then as soon as the rocket motor switches off, you will be airborne. You have got no onboard motor or equipment going; there is absolute silence.

People can leave their seats for some time and experience the magic of floating in space. It changes your life. The five minutes of weightlessness will be really to capture the astronauts' view of Earth from space. Then, we have to get the spaceship down again.

The deceleration is intense again. Travellers will face down for that. So the G-forces peak at about 6 for just a couple of minutes just as you come down. You get into glide mode and spend the last few minutes in a dynamic glide from 70,000 feet back down to the runway.

How many flights are planned in a year?
We start with one flight a week. In the first year, we expect to fly 500 people (six per flight). In the second, as many as 3,000. The fleet will be expanding. In the first 10 years, we may fly as many as 50,000. In the last 50 years, only 500 people have been to space.

How much investment has gone into the programme till date?
About $250 million till now. The bulk is used to develop the spaceships. By the time we become commercial, it would have cost $400 million-plus. Last year, we got external investment from an Abu Dhabi fund, Aabar Investments. They took 30 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic for $280 million. It is an expensive and a high-risk project. But in space travel, that is relatively little money when it comes to a single shuttle launch (about $1 billion).

The investment does not include the New Mexico Spaceway. Spaceport America is being funded by the state of New Mexico. We are the private anchor tenant. The permanent hangar will be ours but the spaceway will be used by other commercial space operators in time.

Does Virgin Galactic plan to go to other planets as well?
Possibly, other planets. Possibly, transcontinental travel. If we can get this right, we will create an industry that will attract a lot of private sector investment.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 14-02-2011)