The Sydney Morning Herald | 7 November 2014
By Matt O'Sullivan
THEY FORKED out $US200,000 each for their place on the first commercial Virgin Galactic flights into space.
A decade later, the handful of Australians who are among the first 100 passengers to have booked a seat face a much longer wait for their dream to become a reality.
The crash last week of SpaceShipTwo in California’s Mojave Desert, and death of one of its co-pilots, Michael Alsbury, is likely to set back the space-tourism plans of English businessman Richard Branson by years.
While dealing a blow to the Virgin Galactic program, it has failed to dent the desire of Brett Godfrey, a former chief executive of Virgin Blue, to one day fly into space.
Godfrey says he knew at the outset that the risks of space tourism were similar to those during the early development of commercial aviation, stretching back to the Wright brothers’ first flight.
“You go back to 1903 and air travel was seen as a pretty silly thing by a lot of people, and it was seen as something for the rich and famous or playboys. It changed to be democratised the way it is today.”
“You go back to 1903 and air travel was seen as a pretty silly thing by a lot of people, and it was seen as something for the rich and famous or playboys,” he says. “It changed to be democratised the way it is today.”
About a month ago Godfrey, who remains a business partner of Branson, joined a group of about 15 Australians who signed up for Virgin Galactic at a lunch in Sydney.
Among them was Wilson da Silva, the founding editor-in-chief of science magazine Cosmos, who says the crash has not dimmed his desire to be on the first space flights either.
“I always expected it to be a challenge. The history of early aviation was fraught with risks,” he says.
Godfrey, da Silva and Monash University chancellor Alan Finkel are among the so-called founders – 100 people who will go into a ballot for the first 20 commercial space flights.
While they remain hopeful of one day flying into space, they agree the crash is a major set-back for the program.
However, Godfrey believes its root cause could be identified within six months – much earlier than the 18-month time frame American investigators have put on it.
“Because it was in test phase, there were six on-board cameras, reams of data, cameras on board the WhiteKnightTwo [carrier aircraft] and ground cameras,” he says. “They will already have a fair indication and they will already be making assumptions which they will be trying to check factually.”
Godfrey remains a vocal supporter of the Virgin Galactic project because he believes space travel has “great commercial applications”.
“I always expected it to be a challenge. The history of early aviation was fraught with risks.”
With the supersonic Concorde jetliner becoming a distant memory, he believes suborbital travel will be the only way for high-speed passenger travel between cities on opposite sides of the globe.
“I am not a space junkie and I’m not into Star Wars, but I am doing it because I believe that Concorde will never see the light of day again,” he says.
“This technology is on the road to that outcome without a doubt. That is why I always wanted to be involved because beyond space tourism it has tremendous commercial applications.”
However, development work at Virgin Galactic will be hamstrung while the US National Transportation Safety Bureau, which is leading the investigation, seeks answers to the cause of the SpaceShipTwo crash.
“We have to find the facts first. If it is something inherently wrong with the project, then that is an issue,” Godfrey says. “But if it can be identified and extracted and replaced, or there is some error that has occurred which wasn’t meant to happen, then those things can be rectified fairly quickly.”
He emphasises that Virgin Galactic will need certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration before it can operate commercial flights into space in any case.
“I am adamant that there will be hiccups along the way to get it right but once it is certified, the risk will be certified as low enough for people to do it,” he says. “I want to do it because I genuinely want to support something that will one day allow us to go from Sydney to New York or London within two hours.”
However, SpaceShipTwo’s crash serves as a grim reminder of the toll on test pilots over the decades.
“It is a tragedy, but so was the tragedy of Amelia Earhart and Yuri Gagarin – they all died in aeroplane accidents in a period when aviation was less safe than it is today,” Godfrey says.
“If you are in aviation, you would say what happened was always quite possible. That’s why you have test pilots who fly these things, and rightly or wrongly accept a greater level of risk than you or I will.”