There are many launches in PR, but most of them are mere metaphors. Virgin is planning the literal launch of a commercial spaceship and Virgin Galactic’s president Will Whitehorn spoke exclusively to Katie King for Behind the Spin.
The journey to space will be one of sensory overload. As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, imagine the large windows showing the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. The rocket motor has now been switched off and all is quiet. But it’s not just quiet, it’s QUIET. The silence of space is as awe-inspiring as was the noise of the rocket just moments earlier. What’s really getting the senses screaming now though, is that the gravity which has dominated every movement you’ve made since the day you were born is not there anymore. There is no up and no down and you’re out of your seat experiencing the freedom that even your dreams underestimated.
Tourism as we know it is about to change and if you thought Virgin holidays, Virgin aeroplanes and the Virgin Pendolino train were the pinnacle of what the global conglomerate has to offer travellers, then you may be in for a surprise. This year Virgin Galactic will unveil the design of the world’s first commercial spaceship, bringing to life the notion of space tourism, a concept many thought only possible in science fiction.
Richard Branson is now about to take on the universe. In an exclusive interview for Behind the Spin, president of Virgin Galactic Will Whitehorn reveals the idea behind the new enterprise, the environmental implications of space tourism and the use of public relations.
So I ask Whitehorn, where did Richard Branson get this idea from and why would he spend so much money developing it?
“In the mid 1990s we were looking at the technologies for the future of Virgin businesses and the technologies in the rail and aviation industry. The first project that we alighted on was by Bert Rutan, a worldwide expert at developing aircraft. He was building a plane for Virgin Atlantic which Steve Fossett flew around the world on one tank of fuel; the ‘Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer.’
“Whilst he was building that, we looked at a space project he was developing and decided to buy into the technology. All current space rockets are meant to push through the atmosphere then into the upper atmosphere and then on into space, but these have huge environmental impact and are energy inefficient. From this came the origins of Virgin Galactic where we were trying to develop a business that is not really just about space tourism and taking people into space, but about taking technology and low earth orbit satellite and other communications into space in the future.”
Instead of launching the spaceship from the ground, the Virgin Galactic spaceship hitches a ride up to around 50,000 feet attached to a specially-designed carrier aircraft, ‘the mother ship’. At altitude, the spaceship is released from the mother ship and ignites its hybrid rocket. The spaceship then begins a climb from 50,000 feet to over 360,000 feet. This climb takes about 90 seconds reaching over three times the speed of sound. When in space the ship changes shape so that when it returns back into the atmosphere it will have a shuttle cock effect that allows the space ship to drop back into the atmosphere letting it reform into a glider or a feathering device.
In other words, you can now travel into space using a fraction of the energy of normal spaceships. In fact, the commercial flight into space will have the same environmental impact as an economy ticket from London to New York, claims Whitehorn, whereas the existing shuttle has the impact equivalent to the entire population of New York and all its industry over one weekend.
But how are you going to influence people to spend so much money on the venture?
“If space tourism was the only reason for the project, we probably wouldn’t be doing it. Space tourism is the first available market. When we were researching this project and trying to justify it to Virgin’s investment committee we had to do so on the basis of finding a practical use for it. The easiest one to look for at first was that people would like to have the experience of going into space, so we could use them to help us develop the technology.
“So we are sharing with our launch customers the fact that they are pioneers and they are helping in the long term to fund this. They are helping in the sense that it justifies our investment of over $200m to make this project work. Clearly as part of that process we have had to find the market and sell the concept to people and we tell the customers and potential customers that they can be a part of something much bigger than space tourism, but the start of space technology as we now know it.
“This is a cheap way, without the environmental impacts, to travel to space. In the long-term low earth satellites and other forms of satellites such as weather monitoring satellites will be launched much more cheaply than they are today. The other spin-offs are scientific experiments in space. Current spaceships and the equipment used are not that reliable. This way, scientists can go up into space cheaply and with a low environmental impact using the new rockets.”
But then why does space matter? Why, given all of the problems that we have on the planet do we need to be in space?
“Everything now from communications to navigation and food production utterly relies on space and satellite technology. With a population of 6.5 billion people, we are using more resources than we can replace and since the launch of satellites and GPS systems, we can now plot exactly where vehicles are around the world, helping food production and distribution to become 7% more efficient over the last decade. We now know where produce is from one country to another so food isn’t spoiling in ports and wasting.
“Space satellites can accurately predict the weather so farmers can fertilise food at optimum efficiency and produce more to keep up with the growing global demands. If you are a company engaged now in commercial enterprise, you have the responsibility to think about how your technology can become the most efficient, using the resources available. So far, the earth has been free with regards to its resources but that is all about to change and if you don’t adjust to that, your business will fail. That is why Virgin has gone into the rail business producing Europe’s most fuel efficient and fastest train, the Pendolino.
“That is why we have been one of the launch customers for the new generation aircraft which is much more fuel efficient, and we have been developing a bio fuel for aviation. That is also why we have moved into the renewable energy sector and the solar sector. But Virgin isn’t like most organisations, we see ourselves as a branded venture capital organisation so we are investing in our own future and the future survivability of our business model.”
You can imagine that informing, creating understanding and changing the behaviour of the market is a huge public relations task. So far there has been a lot of hype about Virgin Galactic, and that it not surprising given the boldness of the concept. The next press event will be to unveil the design of the ship later this year. Following this, Virgin will unveil the actual aircraft carrier and the spaceship itself and will begin the flight testing. It will be at least 2010 before they carry commercial passengers into space. The pioneers, the first 1000 people to travel into space as tourists on the Virgin Galactic, can expect to pay around £107,000. Following the pioneers will be the voyagers and they will probably pay less than that.
Other public relations activities will involve an ultimate reality TV show giving people the opportunity to travel to space. Alongside this, Virgin have a number of documentaries planned and will fully engage in the social media side of communications, including extensive coverage of the launch and developments of the ship to date on the popular YouTube website.