Rocket man

Rocket man

The reality of space tourism will be a step nearer in 2011 as Virgin Galactic begins its test flying. Will Whitehorn tells Kenny Kemp why Scotland must be part of it.

Will Whitehorn is a persuasive and pioneering Scotsman. Standing inside the SEEC on a cold early winter morning, he’s able to transport his stream of consciousness from dear, dreich Glasgow to infinity and beyond. In the next year or two, the President of Virgin Galactic will become the first space tourist from Scotland on a trip in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.

Before then, in 2011, test flights will take VSS Enterprise into the inky darkness that is officially space, where the pilots will see the curvature of our fragile Earth and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. For those who regard Virgin Galactic as purely a risky joyride for the mega-rich, Whitehorn feels there is a much greater ambition and a larger more egalitarian prize.

“Space really matters,” he says. “We have very little room left on Earth to do the things we need to do without producing more carbon. Our entire broadband communications could be moved into space and be much more efficient. You wouldn’t need huge server farms that are producing more CO2 now than the aviation industry. If we could get satellites up there more cheaply we could harness solar power and microwave it down because the satellites to do that would be relatively cheap.” Whitehorn wants more of his fellow countrymen to embrace the space revolution and he wants more investors to understand the importance of what is going on.

He has been involved in Branson’s space adventure since day one, but he has had to steer the project through US senate and congressional committees, helping to define what a commercial space industry will look like.

“Access to space is the revolution that we need to have here,” he points out with a passion. “The microchip revolution has made space a place where you can do business. The problem is that we’re still trying to get into space in machines that are the equivalent of the Titanic.

“Virgin Galactic is like Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in his monoplane Spirit of St Louis with the floodgates that opened for commercial flying after that. The revolution now is access to space.

“I think of all the things that Sir Richard Branson has done over the years, this will be the thing he is most remembered for. It might be a long time from now, but I believe that this will happen.” Whitehorn will become one of the first passengers in 60ft long SpaceShipTwo rocket, which is the size of a Falcon 900 private jet and has had to put up with jokes about Virgin Galactic – most famously when Virgin Galactic announced it had done a deal with Microsoft founder Paul Allen to build a spacecraft using a rocket propulsion system based on the X-Prize’s winning SpaceShipOne.

Unfortunately, it was the day a new Virgin Trains Pendolino tilting train broke down on the West Coast mainline followed by the Daily Mail headline: “Euston, we have a problem.” The jokes and the cartoons have gone. Virgin Galactic is a serious business in the United States, attracting huge interest fromscientists and technologists, and it is a cutting edge industrial project at aerospace firm Scaled Composites in the Mojave desert in California and at the new Spaceport USA in New Mexico.

The man dubbed the Leonard Da Vinci of modern flight, Burt Rutan, has been the designer in chief, but the project now has major industrial muscle. James Lovelock, the environmental professor who coined the Gaia theory of our planet being a living, self regulation organism, has even described it as the most important industrial project of the 21st century so far.

Whitehorn argues that if we are going to sort out many of the problems on Earth, then we need cheaper access to space. He is not the only Scot who thinks this. Craig Clark, the chief executive officer of Clyde Space, a satellite business set up in Maryhill, Glasgow, shares Whitehorn’s vision.

“Most people in Scotland don’t understand the significance of space to our daily lives,” says Clark. “People say to me, ‘It sounds really interesting, but life sciences or wind farms are more important to our economy’. Yet satellites are increasingly important in our daily lives.” Clark’s company is recognised as a world leader in manufacturing nano satellites – weighing less than four kilograms – that can be positioned 600km up in space and used for thousands of everyday technological activities, including sat-nav, weather forecasting and cloud computing. Clark says that Scottish Enterprise has been listening and is instrumental in helping his business.

The UK Space Agency has a pilot project and Clyde Space is building the first CubeSat – a miniature satellite that will carry out cheaper research. UKube-1 will be launched in 2011. The European Space Agency, which is supported by the UK, is encouraging more SMEs to apply for projects. Whitehorn is delighted that companies such as Clyde Space, which is currently recruiting scientists and engineers, are reaching for the stars. In truth, there have been no fresh solutions for lifting stuff out of Earth’s gravitational pull.

Even NASA’s new generation of Ares launch vehicles rockets is based on Wernher Von Braun V2 rocket of 1944 which led to the Saturn rocket that powered the Apollo mission to the Moon. Huge Earth-launched rocket systems, including Europe’s new Vega rocket, are an expensive way to get people and technology into space.

Every Shuttle launch cost about $1bn. Because of this, space science until now has become prohibitive. NASA can only afford seven launches throughout 2011; Virgin Galactic plans to make this seven a week by 2015.

“There has been no industrial development of the methodologies of getting technology and people into space,” says Whitehorn. “Technology has moved on so fast that we can do so many things up in space that we couldn’t do before.

“One of the most exciting things for me of the Virgin Galactic project has been this idea – which dates back to the mid 1990s – if we could develop a cheap and effective vehicle to get people into space so they could see the planet Earth, we could develop a system that would have lots of other applications.” His view is that if Virgin Galactic proves it is capable of taking people into space cheaply and safely, then a lot is going to follow. The Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act 2004 in the United States has taken space out of the domain of the military and classified government activities and given US-based companies the opportunity to use space for private, cultural and scientific enterprise.

“The first phase is primarily as a space tourism project,” he says. “We’ve got permission to do this from the US government. This will give us the experience to quickly move into the second area; sub-orbital space science. That will require further regulatory permission. Then eventually this system is capable of launching small satellites. This will require a new vehicle and the team will work on this. This could revolutionise the cost of getting small satellites into space.” Whitehorn says there is interest in Scotland because of the growing aerospace expertise inside our universities and with emerging firms with highly-skilled technical people.

“Clyde Space is one of the leading satellite companies and they are based in Glasgow,” he says. “They, and Surrey Satellites in England, are world leaders in small satellites and cube micro-satellites. It’s one of Britain’s most successful export industries.” He points to 50,000 people employed in high-value space science and satellite technology in the UK.

“It should be of interest to that community that new launch systems come along that allow this new generation of satellite technology to develop,” he says. Whitehorn is a global Scot. Born in Edinburgh in 1960, he was fascinated with popular science and space in the 1960s.

“It was the dream that was presented to kids in magazines and picture books,” he says. “There were fantastic cut-away pictures of massive Ferris wheels in space – which is still the logical way to do it. The rotating von Braun wheel housing a future space station was an iconic childhood image in comics like the Eagle.” His father Donald was an architect but had been a Royal Artillery officer during the Second World War. He shared with Will the basic principles of ballistics and gunnery and young Whitehorn became an excellent shot. Space remained an interest. The mythology of space in the 1960s was that everyone was going to go there in the future.

“It was where our future as human beings lay.” he says. “The Apollo missions seemed to confirm that.” He studied history and economics at Aberdeen University and after graduation took a temporary job in the oil industry as a crewman flying Chinooks and Sikorskys, the workhorses of the North Sea. He then became a graduate trainee with travel firm Thomas Cook. Ironically, one of his first projects was to find out if the tour company had any liability for deposits they had taken for future space flights. NASA’s Challenger accident on 28 January 1986 – which killed seven crew members – put such plans on hold. Whitehorn moved into banking, working in financial public relations before joining Virgin in 1987. He has worked for Sir Richard Branson for over 20 years – a fierce loyalist who started as a press spokesman and became a confidant, friend and a foil for the highprofile entrepreneur.

He has had a hand in almost all of Virgin’s major projects over the last decade, spending five years on the Virgin Galactic project, helping to smooth the relationships between a flamboyant British entrepreneur and a sceptical US Congress. Now he is handing over the president’s baton to George Whitesides, a former head staff at NASA. Whitesides was also chair of the Reuseable Launch Vehicle Working Group of the Federal Aviation Authority’s Commercial Space Committee.

That’s how serious people in America are now taking this business. The Virgin Galactic project is now moving into its commercial phase, after having five years of business plan building, marketing, design of the aerospace system, and preliminary ground-based testing. Spaceport America in the boiling New Mexican desert is nearing completion in a project involving hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of people. On October 29 2010, it was opened with much fanfare by Governor Bill Richardson, a firm supporter of the space project. Whitehorn says Virgin Galactic has had the privilege of developing its own plans.

“Part of the latest legislation is to give NASA more freedom to work with private sector companies to develop space launch systems.” There are companies emerging – many bankrolled by wealthy internet entrepreneurs – who are developing spacecrafts. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, has set up SpaceX, which has a ground-based rocket to get people and supplies into space; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is backing Blue Origin in Texas, while Armadillo Aerospace, set up by computer games boffin John Carmack, has been working on a lunar lander and has signed a deal with Space Adventures, which is also bidding to take tourists into space.

Even EADS, makers of the Airbus, has been doing designs for a re-usable space rocket. “There is a burgeoning approach to getting into space,” says Whitehorn. “It’s going to happen in America to start with because only America has the legislation. I can’t think of many other places in the world where this would have happened – sadly, not Scotland or England at the moment. “New Mexico has a population almost identical to Scotland, yet there is an attitude there that they need to have a high technology industrial future. The state has invested $220 million in Spaceport America with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant, but they are already attracting other players from the aerospace industry. Virgin Galactic is a $450m investment, with significant Middle Eastern backing, going operational within two years.” So, Whitehorn will become a spaceman; although there isn’t a final date because it depends on the test flying phase and the Federal Aviation Authority’s licensing.

He says: “We can guarantee that we will be in space in 2011 with our test programme, and it probably won’t be the later part of the year.” But Whitehorn has other business interests to pursue which is his reason for a flying visit to Glasgow. “This is my last Virgin project but I will be staying on as consultant,” he says. “I’m joining the board of the SEEC as a non-executive director.

The SEEC has been very successful, but it’s going into a whole new phase of development with a big infrastructure private public partnership. It’s long overdue for Scotland to have an indoor facility of this scale. It will also be part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 but, in the longer term, it will be a major asset for Glasgow and Scotland attracting the kind of global acts that the O2 has attracted to London.” The promoter Harvey Goldsmith told Will that an indoor arena in Glasgow seating 12,000 people can’t fail “because the climate is your biggest marketing aid”. Add to this the chairmanship of Next 15 Communications Group, a specialist technology public relations outfit with IBM, Intel, HP and Facebook as clients – based in San Franciso but quoted on the AIM market – and his board role with Loewy Group, an industrial design firm which did the concepts for the Virgin Galactic spaceship, and Whitehorn has very little time to look after the beef cattle on his Sussex spread.

While he remains a vociferous Scotsman, proud of his local connections and heritage, he is increasingly inclined to promote the virtues of the global economy with emerging economic opportunities that are truly out of this world.