A recent report revealed that Virgin Galactic’s fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo last year was largely due to pilot error and safety oversight — not a mechanical malfunction of the craft. But the point of that nine-month investigation might be moot.
That’s because the future of Virgin Galactic is not in space tourism, says Roger Handberg, a political scientist and space policy expert at the University of Central Florida.
It’s been 11 years since billionaire Richard Branson founded the company. His original goal was to fly (wealthy) tourists 62 miles above the Earth, where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and take in a spectacular view. In those 11 years, however, Virgin Galactic hasn’t completed a single flight with paying customers aboard. Instead, it has issued delay after delay.
Handberg told Tech Insider that the company won’t be successful unless it offers something other than a tourist ride into lower earth orbit. You can already experience weightlessness on the Vomit Comet, NASA’s training ship that regularly carries passengers.
“That’s a pretty feeble business model by itself,” Handberg said.
Not that Branson’s company is going anywhere, he added. “I don’t think he’s going to just let it die.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like Branson has any plans to abandon Virgin Galactic or its hardware.
In fact, the company is developing LauncherOne, a rocket system to send small satellites into low-Earth orbit, or on up-and-down parabolic flight (similar to a sounding rocket). WhiteKnightTwo — the aeroplane-like mothership that can also carry SpaceShipTwo — would loft LauncherOne to a very high altitude and then drop it. From there the rocket and its payload would launch toward space.
Small satellites like CubeSats are becoming more and more popular vessels for scientific study, but right now it costs a fortune to launch them to the International Space Station (ISS) and have astronauts deploy them. According to NASA, “it costs $US10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit.” LauncherOne stands to become a cheaper alternative.
“That’s where Virgin Galactic’s future is,” Handberg said.
Still, it’s unlikely the space tourism element of the company will disappear. Virgin Galactic just needs to find the best way to reach it’s customer base: wealthy people who can afford to drop $US250,000 on a ticket to lower earth orbit. The company already built a spaceport in New Mexico, but it’s looking to expand to locations like Dubai and Singapore — closer to the people with the money, Handberg said.
But competition is brewing for Virgin Galactic’s share of the yet-to-be-realised space tourism industry. Other companies are working on more thrilling experiences, like Bigelow Aerospace. That company is developing “space hotels” — big, inflatable space habitats that tourists could fly to and spent a few nights inside. Bigelow is even ready to test a prototype that can hook onto and connect with the ISS.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.