New forms of air travel have the potential to revolutionise the sector’s ecological impact, said UK entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire.
Speaking at the Slow Life Symposium held at the Maldives’ Soneva Fushi resort, Branson said engineers currently working on his carbon composite Virgin Galactic spacecraft were itching to get started on a high-speed passenger aircraft that would fly out of the atmosphere, fire its rockets harmlessly into space, and re-enter the atmosphere angled at the destination.
“Intercontinental flights that leave Earth atmosphere and pop back down won’t damage the atmosphere while they are outside it,” Branson said. “It will only work if it is economic, but I hope to see it in my lifetime. Once we’ve got Virgin Galactic ticked off, we’ll look at carbon-fibre intercontinental planes. They’ll effectively be spaceships.”
The Virgin Galactic spacecraft already created less carbon output per passenger than a return ticket from New York to London, he noted.
“That compares with two weeks of New York’s electricity supply to send up a space shuttle. We’ve realised that we could put satellites into space for a fraction of the existing cost and carbon output. Schools and universities would be able to afford their own satellites.”
Virgin Galactic would be up and running in 12 months, Branson predicted, offering acceleration of “0-3000 miles an hour in eight seconds. It will be the ride of a lifetime.”
A significant breakthrough, he noted, had been avoiding the need for a precisely-angled re-entry.
“Our spaceship turns into a giant shuttlecock which slows it down and avoids much of the G-force. The pilot can be asleep as you re-enter.”
On the podium with Branson was Jose Mariano, a former Boeing aerospace engineer and founder of zero2infinity, which is currently developing a commercially-viable near-orbital balloon for scientific purposes.
Mariano’s balloon and uniquely-shaped pressurised capsule reaches 36 kilometres, high enough for passengers to see the curvature of the Earth. Virgin Galactic reaches 100 kilometres – the definition of space according to the US Air Force – while the International Space Station is located at 400 kilometres.
“There is no physical boundary or line to define ‘space’,” says Mariano. “What matters is planetary awareness, and what matters to scientists is having a vantage point from where they can clearly see the planet as an island amidst the cold, vast emptiness.
“If it is useful to have a scientist in a space station at 400km, I think it is useful to have a scientist in-between. NASA is realising this and asking companies like ours what we can do there – this region above controlled airspace has not really been explored.”
Mariano recalled a series of interviews with astronauts who had reached the boundries of space where the shape of the planet was clearly visible.
“The writer gave an overview of how each felt before and after the trip – they became much more aware of global problems, specifically ecological ones. Imagine flying a balloon high enough that the sky turns completely black and sun brighter and lighter than ever before, where the line of the horizon bends to a perfect curve and the Earth is blue below you. Up there it is obvious everything is interconnected – a powerful thing for a human to experience.”
Mariano expressed frustration with the slow pace of aviation over the last 50 years, and the lack of support for entrepreneurial companies with unconventional ideas, at least for machines “other than predator drones.”
“Our project is a large scientific balloon that carries a pressurised pod to 36 kilometres, stays up for two hours and comes back with parachutes. There is no rocket or high speed re-entry, making it a lot less attractive for high acceleration thrill seekers. But the whole operation has zero carbon emissions – there is no engine, just helium and stored electricity. Parachutes improve the landing tremendously, and our test flight landed where we expected. People can be waiting for you there with a coconut.”
That unmanned test flight successfully reached 33km, while a manned flight was forthcoming, Mariano said.
Branson outlined his own ballooning career, in which he funded and flew a balloon with the goal of reaching 35,000 feet and crossing the Atlantic. At the time the ballooning record was 600 miles at 8000 feet.
“I was initially quite sceptical, but I find in life it is more fun to say yes rather than no,” he said. “So I went off to Spain to get my ballooning license, and two weeks later I not only had my license but was trying to fly the balloon in a jet stream with 140 mile and hour winds, on my own, with three or four hours of lessons. “The highest we reached has 44,000 feet. It was a great adventure, and the first of six times I was pulled out of the sea by helicopters while trying to break ballooning records.”
A week after the Slow Life Symposium, Branson will open the world’s first commercial spaceport in New Mexico.
“We’re also working on underwater – building a manned submarine that can go to the bottom of the ocean at 37,000 feet and come back up. 80 percent of the species on Earth have yet to be discovered because we can’t explore the oceans properly.”
The submarine is due for its pressure test next year, Branson said, in which it would have to contend with 16,000 times the pressure a plane has to cope with.
“You can do it in a solid block of metal, but that doesn’t give you a good view. We are going to try using carbon fibre, and the plan is to go to the five deepest places in the world. Nobody has been more than 20,000-30,000 feet – I will take it down the Porto Rican trench, which goes to 28,000 feet, deeper than Everest is high. Someone else will take it down the Mariana trench, which is 38,000 feet.
Mariano meanwhile observed that most of the world’s technology, from telecoms to medicine and aerospace, had been “a product of war”.
“Hopefully we are now a more aware species we can move on and create things not out of fear and war. Many good ideas have become casualties for lack of funding – for instance a type of hybrid airship that mixes aerodynamic lift with lifting gases. This kind of airship is very slow and can be used for cargo, but if you have a nice room and can be productive and comfortable on board then I’m sure that has its market.”
Branson had a last word for the skeptics: “People say such things will never happen. Dream – and then make your dreams a reality.”