FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Commercializing the Space Race

by

What would you do for a chance to upgrade to Space class?

-Virgin Galactic advertisement, 2014

The name suggests it all, but when Richard Branson decided to get his toes wet in the concept of Virginal creations (Virgin Blue, Virgin Atlantic, and a host of other projects), he, like Adam, felt that all he would hence utter would be the first. A grand illusion of course, but it has proven to be his mainstay, the glow that keeps his enterprises burning.

The Branson vision purports to be democratic, though it is a democracy allied to the frailties, and vanities, of the pocket. When Virgin Blue was created, the language of the carrier was purposely modified to remove any stuffiness. The staff on the plane were meant to do more than simply ensure a safe flight. They had to tell jokes, be entertainers, remove barriers with their customers. No sternness. Not austerity. Dowdy women and cranky stewards were avoided in the employment lines. The fresh brigade, perfume and deodorised, were brought in like a summer spray, telling their audiences, “Good morning boys and girls” in snappy, tight wear.

As ever, it is an equality premised how far the wallet, and the expectations go. The next part of the Virgin experiment is galactic. Bombast has always been in the Branson mastermix, and space is no exception. Pioneers and frontiers are in a historical tussle – and Branson wants to be that manic pioneer, bringing that superannuated adolescence to bear on customers. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has certainly bought the vision, signing a deal with Virgin Atlantic on Thursday allowing the company to fly into space from the Spaceport America base in New Mexico.

The company’s flight magazine speaks of “upgrading” to “Spaceclass.” The public relations teams have been flirting with all and sundry on the cosmic front, coming up with names that seem a combine of Asimov and board game kitsch. SpaceShipTwo is conveyed to the appropriate altitude for release – some 50,000 ft – before it is released by the carrier aircraft, White Knight II. The aircraft itself takes off from a location near the town of Truth or Consequences. The marketing strategy here grants all the status of “astronauts” – at least at the point they reach the Karman line, hugging the earth’s atmosphere.

The democratic music shoots through the rhetoric. It is, however, the sort of democracy that will require $250,000 a ticket on SpaceShipTwo. “Our team,” claims Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, “is working hard to begin routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America and this agreement brings us another step closer to that goal” (Daily Mail, May 31).

Other measures are also being put in place. On CBNC’s Squawk Box, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic will be accepting bitcoin payments from passengers. As he explained, a flight attendant in Hawaii, herself a bitcoin investor, purchased a ticket which was transferred to dollars “so there’s a fixed rice… [and] we can actually pay her money back, if she changes her mind about going to space in a few months.”

The niggling, and perhaps insuperable challenge for Branson is how durable such a commercial project is. Speed and branding do not a profitable entity make. Supersonic travel was pioneered by Concorde, a business experiment co-operated by British Airways and Air France, that would run transatlantic flights in three and a half hours. Its school boy glamour was never sufficient to sustain it, and the 2000 Paris Concorde crash, killing all 113 on board, spelt the slow death of the venture. Perhaps it is significant that Branson’s efforts to purchase Concorde never materialised, despite a firm push to do so.

Branson also has his rivals. Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer of SpaceX, was pit to the post by the Virgin Galactic boss by some hours. Musk’s presentation came on Thursday evening in California, with the unveiling of his Dragon V2 spacecraft. Musk’s accent on the project is slightly different from Branson. It is less for the brat bankers than those keen on political thrust – a case of breaking the Russian stranglehold of travel to the International Space Station. “The Soyuz rockets are amazingly dependable,” opines Phil Plait in Slate (May 30), “but their government increasingly isn’t.”

That serious objective has not stopped Musk taking the space tourist route, making it clear that various “astronauts” are being trained under a marketing program run by Unilever’s Axe and Lynx body-spray brands. Space travel can be childishly fun, even if it doesn’t necessarily bring in the returns.

While the angles might be slightly different between the entrepreneurial competitors, much of the contest has been taking place in the haunting commercial spectre of Concorde. Supersonic business jet travel, as concept and potential practice, is returning to the drawing boards. The Wall Street and City bankers who felt envy for their predecessors who took the New York-London stretch with Concorde, can rest easy. Boeing is heavily engaged in the project of developing a second generation Concorde, reviving a program that was scrapped in 1971 when US government funding was not forthcoming. The British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aerospatiale were left peerless.

But the entire supersonic carrier project has been bedevilled by a technical problem: minimising the sonic boom generated by objects travelling faster than the speed of sound. In the words of Peter Coen, a senior NASA executive behind research into supersonic transport, “If we can’t solve the boom problem there is no sense working through the other issues [design, fuel efficiency and emissions] because the airlines won’t buy an aircraft they can’t fly to wherever they want to.”

The aviation industry has taken a battering. Climate change advocates are at its extended throat. Fuel costs and efficiency continue to plague carriers. On earth, operators such as Qatar and Etihad are attempting to carve out a swathe of the business. Mergers are more common than hot meals, and the weak are being culled. Space, high above the jungle warfare of air travel, suddenly seems more attractive. It might prove to be a mere illusion. Terrestrial problems tend to stay on earth.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail