Branson’s flagship project suffered a tragic setback in November 2014 when a California test flight resulted in a crash that left one test pilot dead and another seriously injured. At the time there was widespread speculation that Branson would abandon the project altogether. But 12 months on the serial entrepreneur is once again pressing ahead with his ambition to make commercial space tourism a reality. Branson has described his ambitious project as ‘back on course’, and former NASA test pilot Kelly Latimer has recently been recruited to the Virgin Galactic team.
Branson has revealed that it was the encouragement of the 600 engineers and technicians involved in the project, and the willingness of the 700 would-be astronauts who have already signed up for flights, that led him to continue with what is without question his most ambitious project yet. Tests are due to begin on a new aircraft early in the New Year, shortly after it is formally unveiled to the public. The new aircraft is to be known as Spaceship2.
The ambition for the project is to be able to offer up to six passengers at a time the opportunity to reach sub-orbital space. They would enjoy the unique experience of zero gravity before returning safely to terra firma. In the long term, the aim is to have a fleet of such craft offering space tourism on a routine, scheduled basis.
Branson aiming high
Branson has not set a date for the project in any commercial sense and there is still some way to go in terms of fully testing the technology. However, he has insisted that, along with members of his family, he will be amongst the very first to make the leap into space as a tourist.
Branson’s project will put Virgin at the apex of the aviation industry. In a sector which already boasts notable flights for a range of reasons from duration to age, Branson’s soaring ambition will put Virgin in a unique category all of their own. The promise of an “out of this world experience” is one that is regularly featured in travel promotions – but Virgin are alone in pouring millions into a project that really might deliver on that promise.
Flight numbers set to rocket
Meanwhile, a report from industry analysts ADS is predicting that conventional air travel is set to increase dramatically over the next two decades. The report suggests that air travel levels may increase by as much as 80% by 2034 with as many as 218 million passengers crossing British skies annually. Aircraft numbers are predicted to rise to 1,110 – some 700 passenger aircraft are currently in operation. Inevitably, given that level of increase, the pressure on London’s airports will only increase.
The report, happily dubbed The Great British Take Off, points to the emerging demand for flights connecting London to destinations in the Far East, and China in particular. The report also points to the growing demand for bigger, wider seating to accommodate passengers who are – as a whole – expected to be slightly larger than previous generations of air travellers. In the meantime, the provision of tourism on the basis of space age weightlessness remains a work in progress.