Friday, December 11, 2009

Richard Branson Makes It Happen: Private Space Travel from Virgin Galactic

More than 30 years ago, Future Life magazine's July 1978 issue included an article by James Oberg on OTRAG (Orbital Transport and Racketen AG), a company based in then-West Germany and focused on making private space travel a reality. Back in those Cold War days, space travel was dominated by the Soviet Union and the United States, and private space ventures were still the stuff of science fiction or futurist dreams (therefore, I guess, the article found a natural home in Future Life).

OTRAG's plans were to "be able to attract the space launch business on a grander scale [than NASA launches], wooing the communications-satellite corporations for a start," wrote Oberg. Though Oberg included the skeptical reactions of scientists and others to the venture, a more important cautionary note in the article meant more for the ultimate end of OTRAG: "By dipping into a political stew, ... OTRAG has unavoidably unleashed a flood of repercussions. ... Western governments see [OTRAG's staff] as a threat to national space programs. Russia views them as the perfect tool for a propaganda putsch."

And indeed OTRAG was undone by those jealous world powers. Political pressure, particularly from France and the Soviet Union, forced OTRAG to give up plans to use African nations as launch sites for inexpensive rockets. Wikipedia has more on the politics behind it all, but I think it was a good example of overbearing governments killing an entrepreneur who could do things cheaper and faster -- and fairer, since OTRAG wanted to share its technology and access to space with poorer nations that were otherwise left out.

Skip forward to today, here in the already tarnished but still promising 21st century, when we seem to be witnessing a revival of the allure of private space travel. Virgin's Richard Branson is not the only person (and his Virgin Galactic not the only company) doing exciting things in this area, but he is arguably at the forefront of the privatization and commercialization of space. And for people who instinctively dislike the term "commercialization of space," know that the most likely alternative is the "militarization of space."

Recently, Virgin Galactic demonstrated its space plane to a large group of reporters in California's Mojave desert. The ship, called the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise (hey, at least they didn't call it the Virgin Space Ship Millennium Falcon), is a super-sleek vehicle (watch the Virgin Galactic promotional video above) that will take people off-planet to experience short periods of weightlessness for a reported $200,000 ticket price. There has been the expected criticism of these people who are paying a lot of money for a very short thrill ride, and Financial Times' John Gapper  wrote that the project feels "more like a practical joke than a giant leap for mankind."

I think the hand-wringing over the ticket buyers is off-base. Every new technology or exploration relies on someone with big pockets, and in the space race it has usually been taxpayers. But as Gapper also notes, "the U.S. public finances are over-stretched and most Americans would prefer private sector involvement to hitching a lift with the Russians." Well, I have nothing against the Russians -- despite what they did to OTRAG -- but I would definitely prefer private sector involvement for a number of reasons, perhaps most important because it will increase the number of folks who get to go off-planet. With Virgin Galactic -- and I'm sure with a host of other private space ventures to follow -- taxpayers aren't picking up the bill for a small group of Navy pilots to get their shot at fame and immortality. With Virgin Galactic, a relatively small group of rich people are paying the big prices now to get the company off the ground (forgive the phrasing). Like investors in any early-phase company, they put in a lot of money. Unlike investors in most early-phase companies, they will actually get something for their money, so I think this is a genius idea.

No comments: