Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q520 Dr Turner: Coming to the environmental
impact, and especially Will Whitehorn, given the way in which
you have been singing the praises of the lack of environmental
impact of your technology, I would like you all to give an environmental
impact assessment of space tourism and put it into the context
in comparison with the current environment impact of commercial
Mr Whitehorn: I can do that very
simply. If we look at a 10 year programme of Virgin Galactic flying
people with 50,000 flights, for example, I would assess that our
environmental impact would be less than two Shuttle launches.
That puts it into some context for you. The environmental impact
of the system has also to be looked at in the context of its ability
to launch payload with far less environmental impact than ground-based
rocketry. Ground-based rocketry will always be necessary but solid
fuel rockets launched from the ground have a massive environmental
impact which people have been prepared to pay the cost of over
the last 40 or 50 years but I do not believe that society will
in 20 or 30 years' time. Developing these new types of air launch
systems with new technology material aircraft and new technology
engines with new technology fuels is going to be very important.
One of the things we are looking at for the SpaceShip Two project
in its later phases is going to be the introduction of a new fuel
which cannot be used in commercial aviation yet. Butenol is the
name of the fuel. It is a different alcohol to ethanol but one
that freezes at a much lower temperature, has a much more similar
characteristic to Jet-A1 aviation spirit and can be produced from
biomass. If we could develop that new fuel we could even lower
the environmental impact of this system even more, and because
of its special licensing procedures for the FAA this might be
the place to experiment with this fuel outside of commercial civil
aviation in a way which could not be done in a normal CAA or FAA
programme because the engines we currently use have to be certified
with the current fuels because of the safety regimes for passengers.
As to the environment impact, I cannot tell you precisely what
it is yet because we are going through the licensing manufacturing
process to lead to the test flights next year. All I can tell
you is that it is eight people to space for less CO2 output than
a business class ticket from London to New York to put it in those
round terms. From the point of view of the re-entry, the really
fascinating thing about the re-entry with the SpaceShip Two system
is it has zero environmental impact because you are on a glide.
You come in on this re-entry, this shuttlecock, and then it forms
into a glider and glides back down to the runway so there is no
environmental impact at all on the way back into the earth.
Mr Gazzard: When we were discussing
in more general terms, first of all I accept that obviously a
two-engine plane, with payload slung beneath it, air launching
this rocket-powered capsule with fuel at the moment, which is
a mixture of the nitrous oxide and a butadiene component and solid
fueltyresis going to burn for 76 seconds. Let us
not be churlish, that is a fairly minimal environmental impact
even in space. If the launch site is confined, which it probably
will be, to sunnier areas of the world for obvious reasons, they
will also be confined for regulatory reasons in the States as
well. I accept what Whitehorn has implied about bureaucracy attached
to EU and UK agencies which alone will probably kill any European
launch, but fundamentally from the safety view point you have
to have clean, clear and protected air space and that to me signifies
these will always be launched from Mojave or New Mexico. That
is fine. This whole question of whether this is a viable project,
it is tourism and tourism does have impacts. These may well be
minimal once we have seen the statement but equally people have
to get there. They have to take a transatlantic flight so, whilst
the space flight might be somewhat less than a transatlantic flight,
unless they can walk on water, and I know there are some pretty
powerful entrepreneurs who have booked for this, there will still
be a transatlantic flight involved in this self-evidently. Let
us not go for that kind of comparison because that does not quite
work. This business of it is always jam tomorrow, my understanding
of space launches is that you need to put payload into the atmosphere;
you need to get it into orbit. You use these current propulsion
systems and you get a guaranteed result apart from the risk of
it exploding and not going into orbit. What we are talking about
here is you are not going to launch a satellite from below your
aircraft launcher. Presumably this is going to be a payload section
with an opening bit in the two and a half minutes that you are
in space orbit. That is going to be some sight to fly up, open
the doors, launch the satellite, hope it spins, shut the doors,
cross your fingers and hope you are back with your shuttlecock
feathering to land somewhere along the line.
Mr Whitehorn: No, a different
launch vehicle altogether. I said a payload launch system to launch
a different type of payload.
Mr Gazzard: To summarise, fairly
minimal controllable environmental impacts if they are limited
to one or two sites. Safety aspects we can come on to. I still
feel, and we did discuss this around the office and chuckled about
it but we did take it seriously, we did actually really think
that this is extreme ironing in space. I cannot see any benefits
to this. If there are payload benefits as the system develops,
fine and dandy, but these are at least 10 years away maybe more.
At the moment it is just like sitting here going to the opening
of a car door and celebrating that as far as I can see. I am sorry
if that is a bit rude. I can see no benefit for anybody, apart
from Virgin's branding, in this project, and the fact that because
they can they will.
Chairman: You would have been unhappy
Q521 Dr Turner: You obviously feel
that space tourism per se is a bit of a frivolity.
Mr Gazzard: Yes.
Q522 Dr Turner: If the technology
could be used to project payloads into space, is there a prospect
that you could use this technology platform to replace rocket
launch delivery of payloads which we have already all agreed have
a very significant environmental impact? Is there a prospect of
replacing the rocket launcher with this system and thereby avoiding
some of the climate damage which currently results from use of
the present technology?
Mr Whitehorn: Absolutely. I think
I would want to re-emphasise the fact that we would not be investing
$200 million in this project if it was just about taking a few
people into space to have a look at the sites because it would
not justify the investment in the long term. I would like to state
that this system can not only be used exactly as you just described,
to avoid ground based rocketry for certain types of payload and
science launch in the future, but beyond that this can also be
the beginnings of a system whereby when we do need to move people
right around the planet we can consider doing it outside the atmosphere
instead of inside the atmosphere. We have the SpaceShip Three
concept already in our minds, and a SpaceShip Four beyond it,
but we have to walk before we run. I do feel reminded of a debate
that happened in this chamber in the 1830s about train travel.
I remember the very words being used about a frivolity for the
rich and "by the way it is going to be dangerous and they
might even not be able to get oxygen properly and what is the
point when we have canals and horses". I am sorry but I simply
cannot agree with almost a word that Jeff has said.
Mr Gazzard: I can take you to
Manchester, near where I live in South Manchester, and show you
a plaque where the MP was killed by the train.
Mr Whitehorn: William Hoskinson
was his name and he was a very brave man and right to stand up
for train travel.
Chairman: You have lived up to expectations.
This has been a session of tremendous interest and Will Whitehorn,
Dr Patrick Collins and Jeff Gazzard we thank you enormously for
your contributions this morning. We do regard this as an important
element within the whole report and it is important we report