Richard Branson will press on with his Virgin space tourism venture despite the fatal crash of one of his rocket ships in October and hopes eventually to use it for high-speed flights around the Earth.
Sir Richard, whose Virgin Galactic venture this week announced that it will also employ its ships to launch a network of telecommunications satellites, said that he had asked himself if it was worth continuing after the crash, in which one test pilot died and another was seriously injured.
“I remember thinking when happened, ‘My God, if this happens again we will be absolutely crucified. Is it worth going ahead?’ But if you take that attitude, progress never goes forward,” Sir Richard said in an interview with the Financial Times in Davos.
“We have got 300 engineers beavering away to get the next spaceship finished and going through test flights. I am not going to give dates because [we] made that mistake before, but when we have done that and the Federal Aviation Authority gives us registration, we will be up, up and away.”
Sir Richard said that it was impossible to guarantee that suborbital space flights, which will cost about $250,000 per passenger, would be entirely safe. “One cannot guarantee anything but we are working toward getting it as safe as possible and the longer we operate the safer it will become,” he said.
He said that Virgin Galactic “ultimately” wanted to use the technology, involving a rocket ship being launched in mid-air from a mother ship, to offer flights around the Earth. It would first need to bring the tourism venture to maturity, however.
Virgin Galactic is investing between $150m and $200m in building a second mother ship to create the capacity to launch several hundred satellites as part of a venture with OneWeb. The venture plans to create a constellation of 648 low Earth orbit satellites to offer mobile and internet access.
The OneWeb network will cost about $2bn. Virgin and Qualcomm, the mobile technology company, have become early-stage investors, with other investors being sought later. It comes amid renewed interest in providing telecommunications via satellites to underserved countries.
Google and Fidelity have together invested $1bn in SpaceX, the venture founded by Elon Musk, founder of the electric car company Tesla, in the hope of using satellites for communications. Sir Richard said that OneWeb was ahead of SpaceX in already having 2,500 satellite slots booked.
Previous efforts at using networks of satellites for telecommunications have failed but Sir Richard said the technology had since advanced. Satellites could offer high-speed internet access not only in Africa and Asia, but in some low-population areas of the US, Australia and Europe.
“I don’t think anyone has tried anything like this. The cost has dropped dramatically over past decade since anyone last tried it. The technology has improved dramatically and while nothing is guaranteed I believe there is a market and it will work,” he said.