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Commercializing the Space Race

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

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

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