Virgin Galactic – Where Next?

I’ve been watching Rob Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with great interest over the years. I remember sending them an email wishing them luck for their historic flight on the 4th October 2004 when they became the first private team to put a man into space.

In doing so they claimed the Ansari X-Prize and Brian Binnie, the pilot, took his place amongst the great and the good in the annals of space flight history. Incidentally, the morning of the flight I received a personal note from Rob Rutan’s team thanking me for my wishes. I was gob smacked that they had the time to reply to well wishers!

Not only was this a monumental breakthrough in the race to open up space to commercial private ventures, it also captured the imagination of the world and Richard Branson in particular. Nine years later on and Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship 2, the first commercial space liner, has had its first successful test flight putting us a step closer to you and I being able to afford a quick sub-orbital flight.

So where next? Well other than Virgin Galactic there are two other organisations that currently bare scrutiny. In March this year SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first private commercial space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station proving the possibility of private ventures supplying the station whilst a new generation of rockets are built by NASA. At the same time Bigelow Aerospace is working on the next generation of expandable space station modules with it’s BEAM module scheduled for addition to the ISS in 2015.

Virgin Galactic has also announced Launcher One, a rocket solution designed to place small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). So what does this all add up to? The answer is a slowly increasing capability to commercialise space and our first steps as a race, rather than one or two gifted individuals, into the cosmos. Melodramatic? Perhaps but then how long before we see the first privately owned space station/hotel and you and I having the possibility of looking down on the earth from orbit? With progress as it stands we’re probably only a few years away from the first private space station. Time will tell if Richard Branson will be inviting guests.