Sir Richard Branson wants to take paying passengers into space from a “spaceport” in Britain and has promised that the rocket fuel used will be clean enough to ensure no one buying a ticket will feel guilty about damaging the planet.
The 65-year-old entrepreneur said that his company, Virgin Galactic, is back on track to become the first commercial space service – despite the devastating accident in 2014 when SpaceShipTwo disintegrated in a test flight while travelling at 600mph at an altitude of nine miles – killing one of the two test pilots who were on board.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Sir Richard said that his ambitious goal of establishing the first passenger space operation, from Spaceport America in New Mexico, now extends to operating from a future spaceport in Britain, which is being considered by the Government.
“Virgin Galactic very much hopes to be one of the principal operators. We are a contender to operate Virgin Galactic out of the British spaceport once it’s chosen,” he said. “I think initially it will be for people going into space and coming back to that spaceport, but, in time, the aim is to go point-to-point.”
Virgin Galactic has been criticised by environmentalists for offering what amounts to expensive joyrides for the super-rich who, for a ticket costing about $250,000 (£170,000), will be able to experience no more than a few minutes of weightlessness while witnessing the curvature of the Earth before descending to the same spaceport in the Mojave from where they took off.
However, Sir Richard defended his space plans on the grounds that they could eventually lead to a new form of intercontinental travel for the masses via space, which he said could be less damaging to the environment than current long-haul flights from potential fuel savings.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
“We are doing everything we can to try to work towards turning the world into a place that’s run by clean energy, not dirty energy. We’ve managed to reduce the amount of energy, of carbon output, to get somebody into space ... to less than a round-trip, economy class, from London to New York,” he said.
“I suspect, in two to three years, we’ll not be using any carbon output at all for our space programme. All I can say is that we would not want a space programme if we thought it was in any way damaging [to the environment]. We believe space can play a major part in helping the world we live in and getting on top of climate change,” he said.
“I promise you that we will not allow people to feel guilty travelling with us. We will show them we can pioneer clean energy.”
Can Sir Richard Branson really offer us rides into space without damaging the planet?
When Sir Richard talks about carbon-neutral space travel, he is alluding to the possibility of cheap biofuels from growing sustainable crops such as marine algae, or using up biological wastes from farming.
In 2008, one of Virgin Atlantic’s jumbo jets flew between London and Amsterdam using a fuel derived from a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. Sir Richard said the flight marked a “vital breakthrough” for the airline industry’s attempts to go green.
However, only one of the aircraft’s four engines had been converted to using biofuel, which has a tendency to freeze at high altitude if not stored correctly. The technology still has a long way to go.
An equally difficult question hangs over the sustainability of biofuels – as many are made by converting wildlife-rich land. Then there is the question of the impact on food supply caused by converting farmland into industrial biofuel cropping, which could contribute to rising food prices for the world’s poorest.
Sir Richard said that advances in biofuels, renewable energy and cleaner rocket technologies could make intercontinental space travel a reality – and at a price that ordinary people could afford – without damaging the environment or exacerbating climate change.
The prospect of cleaner, intercontinental space travel was one reason that the Government announced in May a shortlist of aerodromes in the UK that could host a new national spaceport. It has said it would like to see such a spaceport operational by 2018.
Virgin Galactic has put in a bid to operate space planes from the spaceport, Sir Richard said. He is convinced that the costs of space flights will come down and the fuel savings on intercontinental flights using a low Earth orbit will make these point-to-point, long-haul space flights commercially viable.
“Not everybody could fly across the Atlantic in the 1920s. It took pioneering companies to bring the cost of air travel down to a price where enormous numbers of people are able to do it,” Sir Richard said.
“In time, thousands of people will become astronauts and enjoy space travel. And, projecting further forward, Virgin Galactic is building spaceships with wings. We’re in the airline business and we want to start offering point-to-point travel via space,” he said.
“Initially, it won’t be cheap, but it’s possible that the environmental costs will be a fraction of what it currently costs to go on an airplane. We hope the price of point-to-point travel will be realistic, so that a lot of people will be able to experience it. We’re talking of tremendous speeds and spectacular views along the way.”
In February, Virgin Galactic will unveil its new replacement spaceship in the Mojave. There are no major changes in the design compared with the ill-fated SpaceShipTwo, Sir Richard said, except that there will be a fail-safe mechanism to prevent pilots from prematurely engaging the “feathering system” which controls the plane’s descent – the cause of the 2014 disaster.
Sir Richard has invited the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking to name the new plane at the unveiling. He has already offered the scientist Virgin Galactic’s only free ticket into space – which Professor Hawking has accepted, provided his health allows it.
“Obviously, we had a year’s delay after the accident and it’s tremendous that Stephen Hawking has agreed to come and name the new spaceship,” Sir Richard said.
“He has made it very clear that he thinks mankind and womankind need to work very hard to try to colonise other planets and that space is very important for people back here on Earth,” he said.
“He has spoken in the past about the need for colonising other planets should anything ever happen to people back here on Earth, so that all those years of evolution will not be wasted.
“There is an enormous amount of things that can be done in space, have been done in space, and will be done in space; and I think commercial space travel will play a big role in that.”
- More about:
- Richard Branson