STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Virgin Galactic bounces back from tragedy with big plans for the future

Four years ago, a co-pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight. The tragedy left the future in d...

Posted: Dec 1, 2018 11:47 AM
Updated: Dec 1, 2018 11:47 AM

Four years ago, a co-pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight. The tragedy left the future in doubt for the space tourism company and derailed its plans to begin commercial flights to the edge of space.

Hundreds of people had already reserved tickets that cost between $200,000 and $250,000. Some people lost their nerve and canceled their reservations.

Aviation and aerospace industry

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Space and astronomy

Space industry

Spacecraft and satellites

Companies

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Group Ltd

Business figures

Richard Branson

Space tourism

Travel and tourism

Technology

Blue Origin

Space exploration

SpaceX

Tourism

Elon Musk

Company activities and management

Company strategy

Startups

Air transportation

Transportation and warehousing

Celestial bodies and objects

Earth

Planets and moons

But over the last few years, Virgin Galactic has righted itself. It has debuted an upgraded design of its rocket-powered plane, SpaceShipTwo, the first of which is called VSS Unity. Pilots conducted its first powered test flights earlier this year — the strongest indication yet that the company is nearing commercial operations.

"I've been so proud of the [Virgin Galactic] team, how they've responded to [the tragedy] and really moved forward with a sense of urgency," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told CNN Business' Rachel Crane.

"We're about to enter into sort of the highest and fastest part of our flight test program," he said. Galactic will conduct test flights that reach its goal altitude, more than 50 miles above Earth. "Then we'll be in a position where we could be doing commercial service," Whitesides said.

Branson himself plans to be the first passenger to hitch a ride aboard VSS Unity.

Exactly when passenger trips will begin is unclear. Branson, who has often touted deadlines that aren't met, told CNN Business on Wednesday that he is "pretty confident" VSS Unity's first flight to space will be "before Christmas."

Orbital flight

The startup also has its eyes on the moon and beyond.

Executives says Virgin Galactic wants to eventually compete with the likes of SpaceX on more difficult and dangerous space travel goals.

"I'm talking about, potentially, orbital flight or even staying a week on a space station or going around the moon," Whitesides, the CEO, told CNN Business. "Or going even farther than that."

Orbital flights, which require faster speeds and specific trajectories, are not in Virgin Galactic's near-term future. The company's current spaceship isn't capable of such a trek.

But Virgin Galactic executives told CNN Business they one day could work with Virgin Galactic's sister company — Virgin Orbit, which is focused on launching small satellites — to develop new human flight capabilities.

Virgin Orbit plans to use a lightweight rocket that will launch mid-air from under the wing of a Boeing 747 to send up groups of satellites, some small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told CNN Business recently that he expects Orbit's first mission to be underway by the "early part of next year."

"When a Virgin Orbit [rocket] goes into space, it'll be traveling at 18 and a half thousand miles an hour around the Earth," Branson said. "Going from there to then putting people into orbit should be ... a relatively sensible next step."

Three minutes in zero gravity

Galactic's core technology is the brainchild of Burt Rutan, an eccentric aerospace engineer who teamed up with Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, to form Scaled Composites. In 2004, their SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a cash-prize competition meant to spur innovation, by making two crewed trips to space within two weeks.

Virgin Galactic has since spearheaded the effort to adapt the technology for commercial flights.

This is how it will work: A carrier plane, called WhiteKnightTwo — it looks like two jets flying side by side, fused together at their wings — takes off from a runway carrying SpaceShipTwo. At about 50,000 feet the mothership releases SpaceShipTwo, and the rocket-powered plane free falls for a few seconds. Then the pilot fires the engine, heaving the craft further into the sky at three times the speed of sound.

At its peak altitude, more than 50 miles, or 264,000 feet, above Earth, passengers will be able to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and take in sweeping views of the planet, Galactic says. From takeoff to landing, the trips will last about 1.5 hours.

Mark "Forger" Stucky, who has piloted SpaceShipTwo on more than a dozen test flights, said he takes it "very seriously" — "but I don't feel like I'm walking the plank or, you know, flipping the coin on whether I'm going to live or not," he said.

"You just have to do the proper quality assurance, in our case training and whatever simulations, to show that you're safe enough," he said.

Billionaire's space race

Branson founded Galactic in 2004, around the same time Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two other deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, established space companies of their own.

More than a decade later, the commercial space industry is booming.

Musk, whose ultimate goal is to establish a human colony on Mars, is leading the charge with SpaceX. It has put more than 60 missions into orbit, without crews on board. Musk also plans to launch a trip around the moon in SpaceX's first tourism mission as soon as 2023.

And both companies want to adapt their spaceflight technology to shuttle people around the Earth. SpaceX said last year that its forthcoming rocket technology could fly passengers from New York to Shanghai in half an hour.

Branson has long envisioned using Galactic's technology for faster point-to-point travel on Earth.

"Obviously SpaceShipTwo is not a platform that will allow us to go from New York to London in 30 minutes," Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic's manufacturing partner, told CNN Business. "But it's on the stepping stone."

In the nearer term, Virgin Galactic will go head-to-head with Blue Origin in offering suborbital tourism flights.

Bezos' startup is well underway in tests of a capsule and rocket that takes off and lands vertically. The company told CNN Business it has not settled on a ticket price, but Reuters reported they will cost about as much as Virgin Galactic's — between $200,000 and $300,000 each.

Blue Origin has not yet set a date for its first commercial flight.

Risky business

Aerospace companies face daunting risks. The history of human spaceflight is one of triumphs and tragedies. The deadliest were the Space Shuttle disasters of 1986 and 2003, which each claimed lives of all seven astronauts on board.

"We think a lot about risk in this company, and we know that we will not have a business if we do not have a product that we feel confident flying on ourselves," Whitesides said.

The chief executive has skin in the game — he's purchased tickets for himself and his wife.

But, he added, "If we don't take any risks, we're not going to advance."

Whiteside said he hopes space tourism will set off a contagion of the "overview effect" — a phenomenon that astronauts have described as a profound shift in one's worldview after seeing the Earth from afar.

"You look at climate change, or you look at certain peace and security issues, these are issues that cannot be handled just by one country or one city," he said. "They're issues that have to be handled at a really a global scale."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the title of Enrico Palermo.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 61516

Reported Deaths: 1701
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin19472835
Ramsey7658267
Dakota4480106
Anoka3739115
Stearns290620
Washington215545
Nobles17656
Olmsted174723
Scott157419
Mower11032
Rice10388
Blue Earth9275
Wright8925
Carver8733
Clay78540
Sherburne7328
Kandiyohi6981
St. Louis57019
Todd4262
Lyon4253
Freeborn3601
Steele3512
Nicollet34213
Benton3203
Watonwan3080
Winona26416
Beltrami2410
Crow Wing23914
Le Sueur2241
Martin2075
Chisago2041
Goodhue1979
McLeod1970
Otter Tail1973
Cottonwood1780
Becker1611
Pipestone1579
Polk1544
Waseca1490
Itasca14712
Douglas1431
Carlton1380
Unassigned13441
Pine1290
Dodge1280
Isanti1280
Murray1221
Chippewa1061
Morrison931
Wabasha920
Brown892
Faribault870
Jackson860
Meeker862
Rock850
Sibley842
Koochiching793
Pennington751
Cass732
Mille Lacs713
Fillmore650
Renville655
Lincoln580
Grant563
Swift551
Roseau520
Yellow Medicine520
Pope480
Norman410
Aitkin401
Houston400
Kanabec371
Redwood360
Hubbard340
Wilkin343
Marshall290
Mahnomen271
Wadena270
Red Lake240
Big Stone220
Lake210
Stevens180
Clearwater140
Traverse110
Lac qui Parle80
Cook50
Lake of the Woods40
Kittson30

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 49024

Reported Deaths: 930
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk10351207
Woodbury372752
Black Hawk313466
Linn239988
Johnson210719
Dallas188835
Buena Vista179412
Scott172714
Dubuque168631
Marshall144626
Pottawattamie132526
Story116714
Wapello90433
Muscatine84848
Webster8138
Crawford7303
Sioux6373
Cerro Gordo63417
Warren5691
Tama55329
Jasper47926
Wright4731
Plymouth4639
Clinton4103
Dickinson3824
Louisa37814
Washington30010
Boone2593
Hamilton2481
Franklin24110
Bremer2277
Clarke2023
Clay1961
Carroll1931
Emmet1924
Des Moines1862
Hardin1840
Shelby1841
Marion1740
Benton1601
Poweshiek1598
Floyd1572
Jackson1561
Allamakee1554
Mahaska14017
Cedar1331
Guthrie1325
Jones1322
Buchanan1291
Henry1274
Hancock1222
Madison1222
Butler1212
Humboldt1181
Lee1173
Pocahontas1162
Delaware1151
Lyon1142
Harrison1091
Cherokee1081
Clayton1043
Iowa981
Taylor980
Winneshiek971
Page940
Monona910
Kossuth900
Mills890
Jefferson860
Palo Alto860
Sac850
Fayette840
Winnebago840
Calhoun832
Osceola830
Grundy791
Mitchell780
Union771
Cass741
Monroe747
Lucas714
Worth660
Davis602
Montgomery594
Chickasaw540
Appanoose493
Howard490
Fremont420
Greene420
Keokuk371
Van Buren361
Ida310
Adair300
Audubon281
Decatur230
Ringgold221
Wayne201
Adams160
Unassigned30
Rochester
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 52°
Mason City
Clear
53° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 53°
Albert Lea
Clear
55° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 55°
Austin
50° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 50°
Charles City
Clear
54° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 54°
Clouds clear tonight, tracking sunshine for Tuesday!
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Car crashes into Mason City home

Image

Dangerous week for cyclists

Image

Sara's 10pm Forecast - Monday

Image

Iowa fall practices begin Monday

Image

How you can raise funds with a local tech companies app

Image

Sara's 6pm Forecast - Monday

Image

Saving A Historic Church

Image

Rochester International Airport announces new service

Image

Primary Election Day is Tomorrow

Image

Clocktower becoming permanent in Rochester

Community Events