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Virgin Galactic: The Power of an Idea
Virgin Galactic completes first commercial spaceflight // How Virgin Galactic was founded from a $10 million contest prize // The bold inspiration that is needed to bring humanity to the stars.
Good morning Earthlings 👽️🖖
“There are much easier ways to make money than starting a revolutionary launch company. Consequently, it will not be greed that propels us into space. It will be the power of ideas,” according to the book, The Case for Space by Robert Zubrin, from which I will draw extensively for the rest of this brief story. As humanity explores frontiers like space, we tend to create some of the world’s greatest innovations and inspire the next generation of builders. We’re also living in a day and age where small teams of individuals can literally do what only governments and large incumbent corporations could do before.
Prior to 2004, the possibility of space tourism and space exploration was considered too dangerous and too expensive. You had to join government agencies like NASA or be a Soviet Union citizen, and ideally be a male pilot with military experience to even be considered for an astronaut.
That world is gone.
When Pirate Wires asked Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda Space Industries, a company building drug factories in space, to give his best guess on what space will look like in 50 years, he replied with something that’ll make anyone giddy about the wonder and possibility of humanity’s future:
“You’ll basically have industrial parks in orbit, a few people who work in those industrial parks, some permanently, some who treat it more like an oil rig — three weeks in space, three weeks on Earth — basically shuttling back and forth. I think you’ll see multiple cities the size of Beijing in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). And when you have such large infrastructure there, you then also have commercial justifications for things like lunar ice mining, given it’s a lot cheaper to send water from the moon to LEO than it is to send water from Earth to LEO.”
We’re entering a new era of humanity’s technological progression. Today we’ll talk about Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism launch services company that’s pioneering human spaceflight for private individuals and researchers, and revealing the wonder of space to more people than ever before.
Let’s dive right in.
Space tourism is here, baby!
After nearly two decades of relentless effort, Virgin Galactic has brought us to a turning point in human history, conducting its first commercial suborbital flight with the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft on June 29, 2023.
The “Galactic 01” mission wasn’t just for fun and games: they launched a crew from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to support a space research mission on the inaugural flight. The company views the mission as a way to highlight its ability to carry out research as an alternative market to space tourism. “This flight will showcase our distinctive spaceflight system, which allows researchers to fly with their experiments, and our capacity to offer regular access to space for the science and technology community,” said Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, in a statement.
It looked like one hell of a ride…
Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, is a suborbital spaceplane that is air-launched from beneath a carrier airplane known as White Knight Two. During ascent, riders experience 3.5 Gs in both directions (i.e., 3.5 times the normal force of Earth’s gravity), and during descent, they experience 6 Gs into their chest. If this sounds painful, it’s because it is—passengers experience no more than 1.3 Gs on a typical commercial flight, for reference. If you didn’t watch the video, here's what the process looks like:
Launch: White Knight Two carries SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15.5km)
Separation: SpaceShipTwo is released from White Knight Two and begins its ascent
Rocket engine: SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine fires for 70 seconds to boost the vehicle to a maximum altitude of over 328,000 feet (100km)
Weightlessness: Passengers experience several minutes of weightlessness and can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space
Re-entry: SpaceShipTwo re-enters the atmosphere and glides to a landing
Feathering: Variable-geometry rudders can be "feathered"—rotated up 90 degrees—to increase drag and control vehicle yaw.
The opportunity: Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said he sees the company bringing in as much as $1 billion in annual revenue per spaceport in the years ahead. It’s a bold objective, but Virgin Galactic is embarking on a multi-year effort that will lead to flights not once a month, or even once a week—but targets flying 400 flights per year per spaceport to get there. This isn’t a cheap endeavour. On June 22, 2023, Virgin Galactic successfully raised $300 million via an “at the market” offering of common stock, and now aims to raise an additional $400 million to fund the expansion of its spacecraft fleet. The bulk of Virgin Galactic’s business will come from private astronauts paying up to $450,000 a ticket for the flight. Even for the modest amount of a few hundred-thousand dollars, the company has about 800 customers already lined up for their next flights.
It’s sometimes easy overlook the first domino that triggered the birth and success of company’s like Virgin Galactic. Their story starts with a man named Peter Diamandis, a physician, engineer, entrepreneur, and author who has co-founded over 20 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital, and education.
Build a reusable rocket, win $10 million…
Diamandis has made a career of making science fiction a reality and has dedicated himself to "opening up space," making space travel accessible to not just the government. During the late 1990s, he found inspiration from "The Spirit of St. Louis," a single-engine, single-seat monoplane renowned for its historic role in aviation. Charles Lindbergh piloted this aircraft to accomplish the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, journeying from New York to Paris.
Lindbergh didn’t just get out of bed one morning and jump into the plane. He had a big incentive, a prize money of $25,000, which would be roughly equal to $422,000 in 2022. In the early part of 1927, Lindbergh, who had only $2,000 to his name, raised another $10,000 from financial backers in St. Louis that believed in the statement this would send to the world. The prize money was attractive, but this was also a mission that was testing the limits of what humans can achieve.
Ultimately, the inspiration that people got from Lindbergh's achievement is believed to have triggered the rapid expansion of the airline industry.
So, Diamandis’ reasoning was simple: if prizes had worked to unleash aviation, why not try the same for space? This reasoning led Diamandis to create the XPRIZE Foundation in 1994, and by 2001, a $10 million prize was offered to the first team that could send a reusable spacecraft to one hundred kilometres altitude and back, twice within two weeks.
This was a bold gamble by Diamandis since he didn’t actually have $10 million in prize money to give out—but the idea was too exciting to fail. Iranian American billionaire Anousheh Ansari ultimately agreed to put up the cash, someone who is still remembered today as the first female private space explorer who spent time aboard the International Space Station.
Today, the mission of XPRIZE holds to its roots:
WE BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF COMPETITION
Without a target, you’ll miss every time. XPRIZE competitions have clear, objective and measurable goals and at their most powerful capture the imaginations of people all over the world inspiring everyone into action.
The world needs crazy ideas. Solutions can come from anyone, anywhere on the planet; engineers, scientists, garage tinkerers, entrepreneurs, innovators, citizen scientists and high school students have embraced the spirit of competition, won millions of dollars in prize purses and helped shape a better future for all.
Every one of us has the power to make a difference.
A clear winner for the Ansari XPRIZE emerged on October 4, 2004, when Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne safely made it to the edge of space and back twice. There were deep pockets involved in the development SpaceShipOne, largely funded by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, who firmly believed in the idea. Just before Scaled Composites got off the ground, Virgin founder Richard Branson announced that he would partner with Scaled Composites to start a brand-new space tourism company, called Virgin Galactic, to transform access to space for the benefit of humankind. Virgin Galactic initially licensed Scaled Composites’ innovation, but in 2012, they acquired full ownership of The Spaceship Company (TSC), which was a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites.
Before SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, misaligned incentives ruled the space economy
The question that always comes up in a story like this is, why did it take so long to get to reusable rockets and a booming space industry?
We’ve spoken a lot about how cost-plus contracting has been the central institutional impediment to progress in the space, defense, and manufacturing industries. The practice is built on the foolish belief that contractors should be regulated to charge government clients their documented costs plus a defined percentage of profit (6 to 10%) on top. The more overhead a project contract incurs, the larger the profit for the contractor. With this practice, having complex administrative processes becomes the incentive, not the line item to minimize. Large incumbents are incentivized to move slowly since they reap higher profits building more expensive systems, and even more profit when those systems break. Palmer Lucky explains that it’s a really bizarre contracting system that America rightfully created in World War II to take over the U.S industrial machine and turn it into an industrial war machine because companies like Ford were saying, “Hey, how can I even quote you for this project to build a tank if I've never really, you know, built a tank before?!”. Now, there’s absolutely no need for it.
In the free market, manufacturers increase profit by cutting costs. In a cost-plus market, manufacturers increase profit by increasing costs. So, why would an industry that gets paid a multiple of its costs want to radically reduce the cost of space launch by introducing reusability?
A paradigm shift in the space economy was needed. A private sector player needed to break the back of a cost-plus industry.
After countless failures in the mid-2000s, SpaceX finally reached orbit with the successful launch of the Falcon 1 rocket―the first launch vehicle ever developed and launched by the private sector. Flash forward to February 2018, and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket took flight carrying sixty tons of payload to low Earth Orbit (LEO) with three of the four boosters fully recovered. To understand the magnitude of this accomplishment, Robert Zubrin will have us remember that the Obama administration’s blue-ribbon review committee headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, declared in 2009 that NASA’s moon program had to be cancelled because the development of the heavy-lift booster would take 12 years and $36 billion. Yet SpaceX launched the same exact payload capacity, in half the time and at one-thirtieth of the cost, with almost complete rocket reusability.
The day that SpaceX's Falcon 9 flight 20 landed upright after hurling back towards Earth in 2015 will be a day remembered in the history books. Packy McCormick’s visualization in Varda: The Space Drug Factory depicting the cost-to-launch over time display’s the magnitude of SpaceX’s innovation very simply. Reusability is a game-changer for humanity’s journey into the stars. At a cost-to-launch of $50/kg, Starship is expected to open the floodgates of the space economy, unleashing a deluge of innovations that humanity has yet to believe was even possible.
The short tales of the Ansari XPRIZE and SpaceX rocket reusability point to the same idea: inspiring engineers, scientists, garage tinkerers, entrepreneurs, innovators, citizen scientists and students to shape a better future for all.
📰 In Other News
Drug fully designed by AI enters phase II clinical trials: Since 2019, Insilico Medicine has been using generative AI to design molecules for treating idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. These efforts have culminated in a drug called INS018_055, which last week became the first drug with both an AI-discovered target and an AI-generated structure to enter phase II human clinical trials. The drug slows down the pace of tissue thickening and scarring, in this case in patients’ lungs. A conventional drug pipeline takes 12 to 15 years and an investment of around $1 billion to get from discovery to approval, but Insilico Medicine has taken just one-third of the usual time and a tenth of the usual cost. This AI-powered process is a first for the pharmaceutical industry and hopefully heralds a future where drug discovery is faster, cheaper, and better than it’s been for the last several decades. (Singularity Hub)
Smart farming system improves crop yields and decreases water pollution: The overuse of agricultural fertilizers often leads to nitrate runoff, polluting water bodies and causing severe algal blooms that result in aquatic dead zones. However, a technological breakthrough from engineers at the University of Texas could pave the way for increased yields without harming water resources. The system revolves around a copper-based hydrogel that monitors soil nitrogen levels, transforming excess nitrates into ammonia for future fertilizer use when concentrations peak. This technology allowed the researchers to obtain amplified rice and wheat yields while significantly limiting nitrate runoff. World leaders are grappling with how to produce enough food for the global population expected to increase by more than 2 billion people by 2050 with tight land availability and the need to minimize harmful emissions. (Eurekalert)
Pew pew! Chang Guang, a Chinese satellite operator, achieved 10 Gbps satellite-to-ground laser communication, with the U.S. still leading innovation in this space: The Jilin-1 satellite achieved a 10 Gbps downlink speed that surpassed a previous record of 1 Gbps via radio frequency connectivity. High-frequency laser communication enables significantly faster data transmission compared to traditional radio waves, although excessive cloud coverage can impact connection to laser ground stations. The U.S. is well ahead in this technology: SpaceX plans to activate laser crosslinks on its next-gen Starlink birds, allowing its satellites to transmit data to each other, and NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) mission achieved a 200 Gbps downlink rate in May. (South China Morning Post)
🤖 AI Art of the Day
‘Till next time, Earthlings.
That’s it for today. As always, thank you so much for reading! 🧑🚀
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