I had the pleasure of witnessing the unveiling of WhiteKnightTwo at the Mojave Spaceport in California this week (yes, I said “spaceport,” not airport). The WhiteKnightTwo is Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft, which will ferry SpaceShipTwo and thousands of private astronauts, science packages and payloads into suborbital space within the next few years. The rollout represents a major milestone in Virgin Galactic’s quest to launch the world’s first private space program for people, payloads and science.
Sir Richard Branson is the Founder of Virgin Galactic, and the WhiteKnightTwo was christened “Eve” in honor of his mother. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to meet Sir Richard, and I’ve been impressed with his natural charisma and people skills. I talked about my first meeting with him on Necker Island in my blog post, The Butterfly Effect of Networking.
As a result of spending a week on his island in the Caribbean, I was invited to attend the rollout of the new Mothership for Virgin Galactic. It was an amazing experience. The invitees were flown from LAX to the Mojave desert via a Virgin America charter, appropriately named, My Other Ride is a Spaceship. There, we were brought into a hanger operated by Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites and designer of the WhiteKnightTwo.
Inside the hanger, Virgin Galactic CEO Will Whitehorn and other company representatives spoke about the progress of the program, with the Virgin Galactic logo on a white canvas in the background (seen in the photo on the right).
After the presentation, they did a 10 second-launch countdown and the canvas dropped to reveal the WhiteKnightTwo (shown in the photo below), which had been brought into position outside the hanger doors after everyone was seated. It was a dramatic and impressive thing to witness firsthand.
Later, Sir Richard and Rutan took questions from the audience. During this portion of the event they spoke about the fact that testing for the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo will take roughly 18 months to three years. When that is complete, they hope to be ready to start conducting private, suborbital flights with paying passengers. Within the next 10 to 15 years, it is their vision to have more than a dozen spaceports conducting regular launches for suborbital flights for the public on a continuous basis (entrepreneurism in space!).
Later that night, I had an opportunity to attend a private party in Bel Air for people who attened the rollout and other guests. There, I had a chance to talk directly with Rutan. This was an amazing conversation, because he shared with me incredible plans for the future of space entrepreneurism.
He told me that he believes the cost for private space travel can be cut to a fraction of the current price tag once the program is fully in place. In addition, he said that eventually Virgin Galactic wants to have a space hotel, with spaceships shuttling guests from earth into outer space. I told him I thought that was a bold long-term vision. He looked me in the eyes and said, “That’s just our mid-term vision.” I was taken aback by that and asked what his long-term vision is for private space travel. He said: “private space trips from the earth to the moon and back.” Now that’s what I call vision!
SpaceShipOne now resides in the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum. I believe it’s there for a good reason. Branson, Rutan, and the teams at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are making history by doing what very few countries in the world have ever done. They are putting together a program to send thousands of private citizens into space and return them safely. Frankly, I think they’re going to be successful and they are going to achieve it at a fraction of the cost it takes governments to send people into space.
Who knows, maybe the space hotel will happen in my lifetime. If so, I’m looking forward to the first business networking meetings at the Virgin Galactic Earth-Space Hotel. From there, the whole idea that “business is out of this world” takes on a whole new meaning.
What are your thoughts about entrepreneurism in space? Feel free to share them here.