The billionaire rocketmen: Branson’s spaceplanes take on Musk and Bezos in race to orbit

About 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, 100 miles out from Los Angeles, the explosion was easily visible on weather radar: a bright fan of scorching debris, spreading out like scattered salt. 

It was not an auspicious debut for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket system, first imagined in 2007 and a centrepiece of Richard Branson’s space flight dreams. But it was far better than the tragedies felt by its sister company, Virgin Galactic, which suffered three deaths in a ground test in 2007 and one more when its SpaceshipTwo vehicle exploded above the Mojave Desert in 2014. 

So it could not have been a bad omen for either company when Virgin Orbit succeeded in hurling 10 satellites out of Earth’s atmosphere on Monday. After being lifted into the stratosphere by a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 jet called "Cosmic Girl", LauncherOne safely detached and ignited for the last stage of its journey.

Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic have different launch systems, and different purposes: one will carry satellites, the other human beings. But both depend on the same unusual method of using a conventional aeroplane to lift a rocket high above the earth before engaging its engines.

While that may not quite have the glamour of the giant, reusable vertical rocket boosters favoured by rivals Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Branson does believe that it may prove the most economical method for making space tourism an everyday reality. 

"No other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fuelled rocket had successfully reached space before today," the company said in its celebrating statement. It boasts that it has built "the most flexible and responsive satellite launcher ever invented", claiming that air launch not only improves efficiency but allows lift-off from any suitable airport at short notice. It already has plans to launch spaceflights from Cornwall.

Could it also prove the key to unlock space tourism? Musk himself has not been shy in rebuffing it: in a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2012, he dismissed the advantages as "negligible", not worth the extra hassle of having to fly and maintain a gigantic extra aircraft. "Once you get beyond a certain scale, you just can’t make the plane big enough," he told the audience.

Virgin’s advantage, if it has one, would be cost. Despite its romance, space tourism has always been a tough sell: there are only so many people who have the money, let alone the inclination, to pay for a temporary escape from Earth’s gravity well.

Musk’s company, SpaceX, has built a Crew Dragon capsule that can take as many as seven people to the International Space Station atop a 230-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket booster. These are full orbital missions, meaning they would go higher than 330,000 feet, and are anticipated to last multiple days at prices as high as $50m (£36.8m).

Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos is taking a similar approach with his wholly-owned Blue Origin space company. Its bullet-like New Shepard capsule will ride a much smaller rocket – about 60 feet tall, making the combined vehicle resemble a flashlight or perhaps a maraca – on a "sub-orbital" jaunt up to the threshold of the atmosphere at 330,000 feet, entailing just a few minutes in microgravity.

Launcher aside, Virgin Galactic’s plan is similar. Its specialised carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, will help SpaceShipTwo just above the boundary, where its passengers will enjoy views of Earth through specially designed windows in precious minutes of "true, unencumbered weightlessness". Branson plans to be its first passenger in the first three months of this year. 

These services are likely to be far cheaper, with Virgin Galactic already having sold more than 600 tickets at $200,000 to $250,000 a pop. That could make all the difference: Northern Sky Research, a space consultancy, believes that the market for sub-orbital flights will be $2.8bn by 2028, while the market for orbital flights will be about $610m. 

The advantage of lower cost remains clearer when you consider another report by UBS, which found that about 35pc of people with high net wealth would consider flying Virgin Galactic once it was proven safe. It estimated that there are about 5.3m people on Earth with more than $5m to burn – but another 37.1m with between $1m and $5.  

Mark Hempsell, a former president of the British Interplanetary Society who worked on the British Skylon spaceplane programme as future programmes director at Reaction Engines, is not so sure. 

An artist's impression of the Skylon spaceplane

Credit: Reaction Engines/Reaction Engines

Growing out of BAE’s Hotol concept in the Eighties, Skylon tries to solve the same problem: making orbital travel cheap enough to make a profit and kickstart an industry, in this case via a single vehicle that takes off, flies and lands without detachable boosters.

Hempsell notes that Virgin is not the first company to use air launch, which has previously been tried by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, with his Stratolaunch programme, and Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus rocket, which was launched from the belly of a custom airliner.  

"Air launch has some advantages if you can use an existing aircraft, so you don’t have to spend $10bn developing a new one," he explains. If it can fly frequently enough, perhaps 20 times a year, such a system can drop the annual cost of its "standing army" – ground crew, engineers, salespeople and so on – low enough per flight to make it viable.

The problem for Virgin Galactic, however, is that it does not use an existing aircraft. WhiteKnightTwo has been under development for more than a decade, and as the name suggests, it is not the first attempt.

"It’s actually quite easy to get a system that is launching passengers making a good operational profit," says Hempsell. "But the problem is making enough to relieve the debt you incurred developing the system… basically you have to be an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos and take the financial hit because you believe in the product."

Hempsell recalls one presentation in the mid-Noughties in which a researcher described the fruits of a computer algorithm designed to calculate the most viable business model. It had to be modified, however, after it suggested minimising the amount of money lost by making the launch vehicle as unreliable as possible, and going bankrupt all the sooner.

It’s unclear how much SpaceShipTwo cost to develop, or how much money Branson had to drum up for it, Branson claims to have spent more than $1bn of his own money on Galactic and Orbit together. In the past, he has repeatedly sold off other assets to fund his next venture, leaving him with an empire of companies he does not own but charges royalties for the use of his brand. 

The booster of the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket prepares to land in a project called Mission 9 (M9) in western Texas in 2018

Credit:  Blue Origin/ Blue Origin

According to UBS and Pitchbook data, Galactic has also raised a total of $1.3bn from the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi. When it went public in 2019, it was debt-free. 

Even so, Hempsell says that any space tourism business hoping to recoup development costs must ultimately cross-subsidise itself with a much more lucrative trade: satellite launches.

The current boom in "microsats" – tiny satellites sown into low earth orbit in "mega-constellations" – is very good news for Virgin Orbit. The recent bankruptcy of microsat company OneWeb, which had a major contract with Orbit, was less good. With OneWeb now having been bailed out by the British government, Orbit is suing it for $46m in unpaid

Yet here, according to Dr Paul A Daniels, president of the UK’s Federation of Astronomical Societies, another problem begins creeping up.

"If you look at the density of satellites that will be in low Earth orbit, it’s already difficult for [companies] to find a launch window," says Daniels, who has spent the last few months giving talks at astronomical societies all over Britain about the danger posed by mega-constellations to the night sky.

With almost 200,000 microsats currently promised, ground-based stargazers will struggle to see past the glow. Rocketeers attempting full orbital flights will also be confronted with a forbidding cloud of potentially deadly space clutter. 

"You’ve got a very crowded space up there, and finding a gap through which you can launch is going to be much harder than it is at the moment," says Daniels. A four by four inch microsat travelling at typical speeds would hit with the force of six tons of TNT.

In fact the problem is already here. In October, Rocket Lab’s chief executive Peter Beck blamed Starlink for an explosion of orbital traffic that was making it hard for rival companies to get off the ground, getting much worse in the previous 12 months.

"This has a massive impact on the launch side," he told CNN. "[Rockets] have to try and weave their way up in between these constellations."  

As well as constraining launch schedules, the blanket of satellites is dangerous. Experts have long worried about a scenario known as "Kessler Syndrome", made famous by the 2013 film Gravity, in which debris from an orbital collision smashes into other objects, causing yet more debris and triggering a self-sustaining cascade.

"It’s a bit like opening up a holiday resort at the seaside just at the same time as the sharks start to arrive," says Daniels.

These problems would probably not affect sub-orbital flights directly, but anything beyond that would be in trouble. Cascades aside, just one accident could shake customers’ faith in the safety of space tourism, as well as inciting a regulatory backlash that could catch the whole industry. 

"I shudder to think what the insurance issues of launching Richard Branson into orbit would be," says Daniels. "Similar for Tom Cruise and other high-value people."

All of which puts the outlook of space tourism for 2021 a little in doubt, though neither Daniels nor Hempsell wants to rule it out. After all, the technology is sound, and Bezos, Musk and Branson all have a vested interest in winning some success for their many years of investment.

A viable, sustainable market is likely further off. In fact, Hempsell argues that Russia’s original, disposable Cold War era Soyuz rockets are still the product to beat, not least because they are well-subsidised by the government.

"They’re not having to pay back any development costs," he says. "By our standards it isn’t terribly well-designed. But once you’ve got the factory churning out expendable vehicles, it’s going to win every time."