The grand scale of Richard Branson’s vision for his Virgin Galactic is apparent in the company’s very name. So it’s no surprise that yesterday Branson announced that Virgin is teaming up with Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada Corporation in their work for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program.
Orbital has a long history of developing and launching satellites to orbit, including from carrier aircraft, in the manner of Virgin’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo. Sierra Nevada is working on the SpaceShipTwo hybrid propulsion rocket engine.
Both companies are developing lifting body (i.e., winged) vehicles for crew launch and return on a runway, and that’s the technology Virgin has placed its bets on.
That’s in contrast to the SpaceX capsule design that successfully flew into orbit and back last week. Both designs are aiming for reusability, a key to lowering the currently astronomical cost of space access.
Competition will help lower costs as well. It’s a good thing. SpaceX currently has the lead. But Virgin and its partners have the resources to catch up. Says Branson in a press release today:
“We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past. We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future, so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars.”