Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flights branded ‘dead-end tech’ by top astronaut
The business mogul, who is worth nearly £4billion, has come under fire from a seasoned space veteran
A TOP astronaut has branded Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flights “dead-end tech” and “dangerous” in a scathing take-down of the British billionaire.
Aussie cosmonaut Andy Thomas said he wasn’t comfortable with how Branson was marketing his for-the-public, £200,000-a-ticket trips to the “edge of space”.
Just last week, Branson’s space company soared 50 miles above Earth as part of Virgin Galactic’s first successful test flight to space.
And while many have praised the wealthy Brit, Nasa astronaut Thomas poured scorn on the flight – and on Branson himself.
“The thing I’ve got to say about Richard Branson is he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos,” Thomas told ABC.
“He’s a businessman and he’s portraying that flight experience in a way that I would not be comfortable saying.”
He went on: “It’s true that he will fly to the edge of space, but he can’t stay there. He falls right back down.
“It’s really just a high-altitude aeroplane flight and a dangerous one at that.”
Thomas also suggested that Branson’s space flight tech was difficult to scale up.
He called it “go nowhere, dead-end technology”, and said: “You can’t grow it, you can’t make it big enough.”
Thomas is a space veteran, having made four successful space flights with Nasa.
And although he has concerns about Branson, he also admitted that he supported the billionaire’s overall mission.
“What he is spinning off is the capability to launch satellites, small satellites from under the wing of an aircraft on a small booster,” he said.
“That’s why, despite my criticisms of what he’s trying to do in human space flight, I think in terms of the satellite technology and the capabilities of launching vehicles, it’s something we should support.”
In a statement given to The Sun, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said: “Following the successful spaceflight last week which saw a crewed space vehicle reach space from American soil for the first time since 2011, we look forward to sharing the experience of space with more people in an effort to provide a planetary perspective at a time when such a perspective is dearly needed.”
Last week, Branson revealed he planned to travel to space “within six months”, as part of the first commercial Virgin Galactic flight.
It came after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity soared 50 miles above Earth last Thursday, ahead of the company’s first commercial spaceflights for private passengers in 2019.
The flight, launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 3:15pm GMT, soared to an altitude of 271,000 feet above Earth’s surface strapped to a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo.
It successfully separated from its mother ship around 45 minutes after liftoff and engaged its rocket thrusters, reaching speeds of Mach 2.9.
SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor burnt for 60 seconds before shutting off, carrying the space plane to a top altitude of 51.4 miles, according to Virgin Galactic.
Speaking after the flight, a tearful Branson said it shows how “myself and thousands of other people like me” could make it to space.
The Brit billionaire said: “We saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. How on Earth do I describe the feeling?
“Today for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space.”
Branson, who has an estimated net worth of £3.9billion, went on: “Space is not cheap.
“I’ve personally invested about a billion dollars in this project, so having our first money coming back is a good feeling.
“We’ve got to make this a profitable venture, and I think we can make it a profitable venture.”
He also said he himself hoped “to go up in maybe five, six months time”.
Branson has previously admitted he hopes that he’ll be joined by family members on his first flight.
This could include his mother Eve Branson, 94, who has attended Virgin Galactic events in the past.
“We’ll have to see nearer the time,” he said, speaking to The Guardian in 2016.
“The whole family want to go: nephews, nieces, everyone except my wife. Both my children have now got their hands full with babies, so it’s possible that on the initial flight I’ll go up on my own and they’ll go up on subsequent flights.
“We’ll make that decision in six or nine months’ time.”
Unity headed back to Earth on a controlled decent that saw its two test pilots glide toward the planet and land the craft back on the Mojave spaceport runway.
The landing at 4:15pm GMT came almost exactly an hour after launch.
Following the flight, Sir Richard addressed the crowd at the Mojave spaceport with test pilots CJ Sturckow and Mark “Forger” Stucky.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, space is Virgin territory,” he said.
Reaching the edge of space marks a huge step toward Sir Richard’s goal of sending tourists to space, first promised more than a decade ago.
“This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration,” Branson said.
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.”
More than 600 people, including major celebrities Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga, have reserved a £200,000 ride on the six-seat rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.
Many have had to wait years for their chance to reach space. Development of the firm’s space plane took far longer than expected after a catastrophic test flight killed a Virgin pilot in 2014.
The company didn’t take on another rocket-powered flight until April this year, this time using the second version of its space plane.
The test marks Unity’s fourth rocket-powered flight, and Virgin Galactic admitted there was a chance the launch could go horribly wrong.
“Risk is a valuable part of forward progress and intrinsic in risk is sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said ahead of the launch.
“I think we can authentically say that we’re obviously hoping for a good day tomorrow but the risk of a not good day is still possible.”
Unlike most space launches, Virgin Galactic’s flights are not powered entirely by a rocket.
Instead, Unity is carried toward the edge of space by an enormous mother-ship called White Knight Two.
Once the pair reach 50 miles above Earth’s surface, Unity detached from its parent plane and ignites its rocket engines, shooting into space at a near-vertical angle.
After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, travelling three and a half times the speed of sound, the pilots will shut the engines down.
Six passengers will then have the chance to detach their seatbelts and experience weightlessness for around four minutes, before the plane turns around and returns to Earth.
Following last week’s flight, Virgin Galactic will need only “two or three” more powered tests to prove it can safely take tourists to space, Mr Whitesides said.
Branson noted:”Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally.
“Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder.”
How Virgin Galactic will fly tourists to space
Here’s everything you need to know.
- Unlike most space flight companies, Virgin Galactic will not use a rocket to launch tourists to space.
- Instead, its SpaceShipTwo Unity Space plane will head toward space strapped to an enormous carrier plane called White Knight Two.
- At around 50 miles above the Earth’s surface – the border of outer space as defined by Nasa – Unity will detach from its mothership.
- Within seconds, the space plane will engage its rocket motor and Unity will fly at a near-vertical angle into suborbital space, hitting three and a half times the speed of sound.
- After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will safely shut it down, giving riders around four minutes of weightlessness.
- The pilots will then swivel Unity around and return it to Earth, landing it using a splayed tail system like a shuttlecock to control its re-entry.
- Unity will then glide back to the ground, landing on a runway like a commercial plane.