Virgin Galactic: Boon or Boondoggle

Virgin Galactic: Boon or Boondoggle

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The day of decision is approaching for entrepreneur Richard Branson’s space travel venture. Virgin Galactic is scheduled to launch its first “space tourist” flights in 2014. The trips will originate from Virgin’s spaceport complex in New Mexico (London Evening Standard). The state government financed the facility, which cost an estimated £155 million (approximately 233 million USD), through a sales tax approved by the voters. If the venture succeeds, the residents of New Mexico will reap the financial benefits associated with a successful start-up in an exciting niche market. And if Virgin Galactic expands into true intercity space travel , it could be the start of something really big. But if the entrerprise is a bust, the state’s residents may ponder how many roads, bridges, schools and libraries the money could have funded.

For now, Virgin Galactic will operate in tourist mode. Passengers will board a craft that resembles a small business jet. A mother ship carries it to launch altitude, nine miles above the earth’s surface. A brief suborbital flight ensues, and gives them a taste of space travel, from the force of heavy G’s to panoramic views of the curvature of the earth.

The price: £130,000 (USD 195,000). Not exactly economy class, and the passenger list is laden with celebrities and assorted rich people, willing to splurge on a unique, albeit very brief, travel experience. It will take a long time for intercity space travel to develop the economies of scale needed to grow beyond niche status. But the prospect is fascinating.

Photo credit: Akradecki via Wikipedia

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