The Engadget Interview: Sir Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic and space tourism for the everyman

The Engadget Interview Sir Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic and making space travel affordable

It's been a particularly good week for Sir Richard Branson. SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital peoplecarrier broke the sound barrier for the first time, and Virgin America began service into San Jose, California. Sir Richard was in town to welcome VA's first San Jose arrival, and we jumped at the chance to chat with him, even if only for a few minutes.

Our conversation revolved around Virgin Galactic's latest milestone on its journey towards ferrying the masses to the stars. Naturally, we wanted to know his plan to make space travel affordable for us non-billionaires, as the current cost of a Virgin Galactic ticket is a cool $200K quarter million dollars. His solution? A combination of more spacecraft, more spaceports and the most prolific satellite delivery service in history.

Now that you have SpaceShipTwo's first rocket-powered flight under your belt, how many more steps do you have to go before you're going to be taking passengers up into space?

We'll be into space before the end of the year, and we'll be taking passengers -- subject to getting, you know, FAA certification and everything -- early next year. So, the day before yesterday was truly important and truly historic. You know it's all very well building a rocket, it's all very well building a spaceship, but if the two don't work together you've got a problem. And once you've gone 1,000MPH, gone 4,000MPH or 3,000MPH, we can pretty well extrapolate it up. So, you know, it was an enormous milestone. [We] talk as if we're going to space every year for the last seven years, but now, I can properly say, "We are going to space this year."

With such a long journey to get to this point, having overcome so many obstacles, what is the biggest hurdle left to clear?

Look, we're building a commercial spaceship company, the first ever. A lot of businesses -- let's say they mass-launch a new car, and they have a few technical problems, they can cope with that. With a spaceship company, you can't afford to have technical problems. And so we've got to get every single little thing 100 percent right, 100 percent safe. We can't afford to lose any customers, and so we've just got to do test flight, after test flight, after test flight until we really feel... until I feel comfortable enough to bring my kids up, and then we can be confident to take other people's kids up.

Speaking of those customers, it's pretty expensive to get a seat on SpaceShipTwo right now. Will space travel ever be affordable?

Yes. Up to our first thousand customers, the price actually is going up now to $250,000. They help us effectively fund the program. They're the people who can afford to pay it, and we're enormously appreciative of their support. But in the years to come, we will get the price down, and our aim is to, you know, by the time you get to an age where you want to go to space, you'll be able to afford it, and by the time your children want to go to space, they'll be able to afford it. So, I don't want to forecast prices and things; we're going to try to make it as affordable to as many people as possible.

What's the key to getting the prices down to an affordable level?

The key to that has to be a lot more spacecraft. And there's also a new rocket we're developing which is a reusable rocket, which is a very clean, very, very, very clean rocket. And, you know, it uses really a small amount of energy to get people up there. Also, maybe more space ports. We've got our first spaceport in New Mexico. We may have to think of other spaceports. We're also going to be able to put more satellites in space in one month -- three and a half thousand satellites in one month -- than have been put up in the last 10 years. So, and I don't want to speculate what that could achieve, but if you could put your thinking hat on, it could be transformative in a whole lot of industries, and that, the economics from that will help us get the price of tickets down.

With respect to delivering satellites into space, are you working with SpaceX and Elon Musk, or will Virgin Galactic be doing things differently?

We're great friends. We're both doing our own thing. We will be putting low-earth orbit satellites up, which personally we think is the future, he's putting bigger satellites up further. And I think we can create a whole new industry from the back of being able to put satellites up at a very affordable price because we can replenish those satellites within 24 hours. So, you know, if after five years one or two of them start falling out, we can just, you know, within 24 hours send up our mother ship. Send them to the specific places. That's not been possible before. People have had to wait a year in line to put satellites up. So it is going to be transformative.

Will the satellite business help to fund the passenger business to drive the costs down?

Yes, exactly, and vice versa.

And you've already said that the next step for Virgin Galactic will be to build orbital spacecraft – how long before you start testing them?

That will be about three years away.

Thanks for chatting with us, Sir Richard!

Thanks, thanks much.