The long-term vision thing
by Jeff Foust
|In terms of publicity, at least, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are quite different.|
By contrast, many of the current NewSpace companies today are primarily, if not exclusively, backed by a single wealthy investor: Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace, Elon Musk of SpaceX, and John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace, among others. Yes, these people want to make money—and have demonstrated their ability to do so in other industries—but are motivated by a long-term vision that allows them to look past short-term concerns and setbacks. While some complain, accurately, that NewSpace companies have been slow to develop their vehicles, the fact that these companies are still active and making progress, if at a more deliberate pace, demonstrates the benefits of this model over more conventional institutional investment with its shorter time horizons.
But just how similar are these companies? Take, for example, Virgin Galactic, supported by Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group; and Blue Origin, funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The former is one of the most visible NewSpace companies, thanks in large part to the promotional efforts of Branson and Virgin. Blue Origin, though, is one of the most secretive, albeit a little less so now than a few years ago, in part because of NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards the company received. In terms of publicity, at least, the two are quite different.
Branson is a master promoter, using all types of stunts to attract attention for the suite of Virgin companies. This included dangling from the side of the new terminal building at Spaceport America in October, uncorking a bottle of champagne to formally dedicate the structure—even if he mangled the name (see “A gateway to space emerges in the desert”, The Space Review, October 24, 2011). It was the latest in a series of rollouts and demonstrations Virgin Galactic has held over the last several years to mark its progress, even as the date the company has projected beginning commercial flights has slipped.
It was interesting, then, that Branson didn’t use his latest book, Screw Business as Usual, to also promote Virgin Galactic, which is hardly a usual business. Virgin Galactic makes only a brief cameo in the book, mentioned in passing as one of the many activities he’s involved with. Instead, the focus of the book is on what might be called a more “socially conscious” form of capitalism, where business seek to make money but also support their communities and the environment. Virgin Galactic’s educational initiative, Galactic Unite, is mentioned in the book, but little else about the company.
While Branson doesn’t mention Virgin Galactic much in the book, he does talk about it when doing publicity for it, such as an interview earlier this month with NPR. In it he indicates that his interest in spaceflight dated back long before he formally unveiled Virgin Galactic in 2004. “You know, in 1990 I read the name Virgin Galactic Airways. Loved the name,” he said. “And set out to try to find an engineer or rocket scientist in the world who could build a safe, reusable rocket that could take people to and from space and we could start a whole new era of commercial space travel.”
That, of course, led to Virgin’s partnership with Scaled Composites to develop SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. And while his interest has been long running, his timetables are becoming increasingly aggressive. SpaceShipTwo, he said in the NPR interview, “is very, very, very nearly completed and will be ready from about next Christmas onwards to start taking people into space.”
|SpaceShipTwo, Branson told NPR, “is very, very, very nearly completed and will be ready from about next Christmas onwards to start taking people into space.”|
Virgin Galactic officials, by comparison, have been more reticent to set specific timetables for entering commercial service, citing the overriding importance of developing a safe vehicle. For example, Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said in a speech in Orlando in early October that they expected powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo to begin early next year and get “to some definition of space by the end of next year.” Whitesides offered a similar schedule last week at a conference in Paris, according to a Wall Street Journal account, saying “We hope to get into space next year,” while adding that the company recently reached the milestone of 500 tickets sold.
Blue Origin, by comparison, makes few big public splashes, so much so that it was considered a big deal in the NewSpace field last month when the company redesigned its rather basic web site. It added very little new content that the company hadn’t previously disclosed on its web site or in conference presentations; the most significant addition was video of a “short hop” test flight of a prototype vehicle earlier this year (the same vehicle that was lost in another test flight in August from the company’s launch site in west Texas.)
Yet Blue Origin has no shortage of ambition. Originally thought to be focusing solely on a suborbital vehicle, the company has more recently disclosed plans to develop an orbital vehicle that could be launched initially on expendable rockets like the Atlas V, but eventually on the company’s own reusable launcher. Developing an orbital RLV has long been the holy grail of spaceflight, given its promise to greatly reduce the cost and increase the frequency of space access, but past ventures have fallen far short of that goal because of technical challenges and limited funding.
Can Blue Origin achieve that challenging technical goal? “Blue Origin was created in the year 2000 specifically to enable an enduring human presence in space,” Blue Origin CCDev project manager Rob Meyerson said Friday during a panel session at the NASA Future Forum at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “We have a founder, Jeff Bezos… who has the long-term vision and resources to carry that through to fulfillment.”
In the recent book One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, author Richard L. Brandt describes how that vision dates back to Bezos’s childhood, inspired by his grandfather, who had worked on space and missile projects for DARPA. “Jeff was, in fact, obsessed with the prospect of space travel” as a teenager, Brandt writes, adding that Bezos included a call for the colonization of space in his high school valedictorian speech.
In an interview in the December issue of Wired magazine, Bezos confirms that his interest in space dates back to childhood, specifically, watching the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. “When I was 5 years old, I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. It made me passionate about science, physics, math, exploration,” he tells technology journalist Steven Levy.
|“If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost,” Bezos told Wired.|
The last chapter of One Click discusses Blue Origin, although it offers few details not previously published about the company and its plans. Brandt suggests that Bezos is applying a similar philosophy to Blue Origin as he did to building up Amazon.com: “obsess” over customers and their needs, work on continuous technical improvements, focus on the long term (Brandt believes Blue Origin will be a “decades long project”), and to seek out new challenges.
Bezos says he focuses on the long term with Blue Origin, Amazon.com, and other projects. “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people,” he says in the Wired interview. “But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”
“If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost,” Bezos adds. “That’s Blue Origin’s mission. I’m super passionate about it.”
Meyerson, in Friday’s panel session, confirmed that viewpoint. “We’re going to be designing and building and flying space vehicles 15, 20, 30 years from now, regardless of how the program changes over time,” he said, thanks to the stable financial support offered by Bezos. “We’re not just building a rocket, we’re building a company that builds rockets.”
Virgin, though, is not without a long-term vision either. Branson has repeatedly talked about future vehicles that could enable high-speed point-to-point transportation, as well as orbital spaceflight. And he even thinks beyond that, stating in the NPR interview that “Virgle”, an April Fools’ joke done in cooperation with Google that proposed one-way missions to Mars, attracted serious responses. “I wouldn’t be surprised, within the next 50 years, [if] there are one-way trips heading out into space with people on it,” he said. “It would be very exciting.”