Is Virgin Galactic the Ultimate Thrill Ride?

July 11, 2021, 7:30 PM · British billionaire Sir Richard Branson blasted into space this morning in his Virgin Galactic Unity spaceplane. Virgin Galactic is run by former Disneyland President Michael Colglazier and recently hired former Imagineer Joe Rohde as its "Experience Architect," so the the company has strong connections to the theme park industry. And that makes sense. Because what Branson is trying to do with Virgin Galactic is as much Disney as it is NASA.

Virgin Galactic will be taking customers in a rocket-propelled spaceplane to an altitude over 50 miles, which NASA and the US military consider the boundary of space. That's still short of the 62-mile Karman line that other international authorities consider the border, but it's high enough to see the sky turn black, the Earth's horizon curve below you and for passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness at the peak of their suborbital, parabolic flight.

If Disney once sold A through E ticket rides, a trip on Virgin Galactic is a Z ticket. It's the ultimate thrill ride available to a paying customer. The stats dwarf anything imaginable on a terrestrial theme park attraction: a height of more than 280,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 3.2, or more than 2,400 miles per hour. Beyond the stats, though, it's the credit. Fly on Virgin Galactic, and you gain entry to the exclusive club of human beings who have slipped the bonds of Earth and can say that they have flown to space.

But only for a moment. Yet... what a moment.

Themed entertainment strives to create moments that bring people into another world. Ultimately, that is exactly what Virgin Galactic is selling. It's a moment in space (or, at the edge of it, if you're a Karman hard-liner), that awakens your imagination and passion for space and the opportunities it provides. But to resonate, that moment needs context.

Many of us have been dreaming of space for much of our lives - watching launches, reading books and going to movies depicting adventures in outer space. That lays a foundation that creates a demand for Virgin Galactic's experience. But achieving the dream of flying to space would become a miserable experience if you were just strapped into a seat, blasted off, left nauseous by the free fall at the apogee of a parabolic flight path, had to struggle with other passengers to see anything through a tiny, shared porthole and then were brought back to Earth moments later and sent on your way with nothing to show for your trip but a barf-stained shirt.

Former Amazon CEO's Blue Origin is also preparing to offer commercial space flights in competition with Virgin Galactic. Those will reach the Karman line in a more traditional rocket rather than Virgin Galactic's spaceplane. But business history has shown us that the winner among competing products is not as often the option with superior specs as it is the one with superior storytelling. The commercial spaceflight company that delivers the experience that resonates most with its passengers will be the one that potential clients wish to book.

That is why it is not enough to book rocket scientists to win the space travel race. You'd better have some themed attraction storytellers on your team, as well.

With a Z ticket experience comes a Z ticket price, of course. Virgin Galactic is said to be asking $250,000 for a seat on one of its flights. Bezos auctioned a seat on his upcoming Blue Origin New Shepard flight for $28 million. (And you thought "ride on the first train" coaster auctions could get expensive.) So space flight remains far from a mass market attraction. But going to space now is an attainable attraction for the ultra-wealthy or well-connected who can afford these (forgive me) stratospheric prices.

The space flight attraction industry is now open.

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Replies (20)

July 11, 2021 at 7:53 PM

Still seems cheaper and easier to get on than the new Star Wars ride.

July 12, 2021 at 12:52 AM

This perfectly exemplifies the complete lack of empathy and rampant selfishness of America's billionaires. Apparently, Branson thinks it's more important to spend his immense fortune on creating an amusement ride for millionaires rather than helping people in need such as our pathetically-desperate homeless population. And America cheers him on. Sad.

July 12, 2021 at 5:12 AM

@Beacher - Branson is English

July 12, 2021 at 10:54 AM

Personally, I'd much rather take a flight on the Vomit Comet than on Branson's quick flight up into low Earth orbit. It's far safer, and gives you plenty of zero-g time, which is most of the appeal of these commercial space flights.

July 12, 2021 at 11:24 AM

What's sad, Beacher, is that you fail to understand that Branson is addressing the homeless situation by creating an entirely new industry with multitudes of jobs and tremendous commercial growth potential.

A hand-up is always far better than a hand out.

July 12, 2021 at 12:21 PM

FWIW, Branson just bought out the small American company that won the X Prize for its SpaceShipOne spaceplane, funded the development of its next generation version and then slapped the Virgin Galactic name on it. Frankly, VG's method of getting people into space seems way less wasteful of energy and resources than the rockets that Blue Origin is using to push people 10 miles higher. Granted, rockets are probably necessary to move large payloads into space, given the limits of aircraft. But to move people into space, VG's spaceplane system seems a more elegant solution to my (admittedly) untrained eye.

July 12, 2021 at 3:17 PM

@Tim Hillman - How does creating a new industry help homeless people? I will gladly donate $1,000 to your favorite charity if you can explain how a person with no address, no phone and no email can get a job in Branson's new industry (or anywhere else).

July 12, 2021 at 4:25 PM

It’s Branson’s money, he can do what he wants with it. It’s called America, and God bless it.

July 12, 2021 at 4:46 PM

@ Beacher.

Are you aware that Branson is a serious giver to charity?

July 12, 2021 at 4:53 PM

@Keith Schneider - Of course he can do whatever he wants. But what does it say about a man who has more money than he needs and chooses to spend it on a thrill ride for the uber-rich instead of helping people who are truly desperate? Branson and the other billionaires can house the homeless, feed the hungry and help the helpless. But they choose not to. And what does it say about a nation that applauds and defends this behavior? America's heart has grown cold.

July 12, 2021 at 5:08 PM

America has a heart of gold. Seems as though you are projecting. Maybe you need more Jesus in your heart.

July 12, 2021 at 5:19 PM

@David Brown- Thanks for the helpful link. The amount Branson is donating - $3 billion of the profits from his travel businesses (spread out over 10 years) to combat climate change is nice but it's peanuts compared to his own personal fortune. (He's literally hoarding billions of dollars.)

He and the other billionaires choose to completely ignore the desperate plight of the multitudes of homeless hungry people in our own cities and towns. If we truly want to help make the world a better place, we need to start by helping those most in need. #priorities

July 12, 2021 at 5:26 PM

@Keith Schneider - If America had a heart of gold, we wouldn't allow people to be living in the streets like feral animals. We wouldn't allow people to go hungry. It would be unacceptable. A nation with a heart of gold would enthusiastically help those who most need help. Jesus is weeping.

July 12, 2021 at 5:37 PM

Mankind thrives on pioneering entrepreneurs/entrepreneurial may just save our species in the future. Chapeau Sir Richard! You get my vote.

July 12, 2021 at 5:43 PM

You could donate $1,000 to the next homeless person you see. I’m sure it’d bring a smile to Jesus’s face, especially if his name is Jesus. AMERICA!

July 12, 2021 at 5:51 PM

Sure Beacher, I'd be glad to.

Before the pandemic, 7.8% of the US GDP was estimated to be due to the tourism sector of the economy. The tourism aspect of space travel is just an extension and expansion of the tourism sector of the economy. The jobs generated by space tourism range from high paid engineers, technicians, fabricators, and programmers all the way down to lower paid support staff like housekeepers and fuel truck drivers. These are new jobs and the money spent on space tourism would probably languish in stocks, bonds, and CDs where the job creation power of the money would most likely not be as great. Putting more people to work has a trickle down effect that keeps many people on the edge of homelessness in a job and able to pay the bills and keep their homes.

So, Branson is doing something good and exciting, and he's having fun while doing it, and he's inspiring a whole genertion of young folks to look at space exploration again just like the Apollo program did the Boomer generation. This country needs investment and inspiration like this.

And I haven't even touched on the commercial side of the private space exploration yet. The technologies currently being developed to get these vehicles in space and the technologies that could benefit from being a zero gravity environment are many. The semiconductor industry and the high temperature superonductor industry are just two of the fields that have been mentioned that would benefit tremendously from just being able to commercially exploit the conditions in space.

And while you're on the soapbox about billionaires spending money on space tourism, what about the people on this site who are eagerly planning to spend their optional funds on trips to Disney and Universal? Are we okay because we're not billionaires or do you draw the line at a billion? And then somebody else draws a line at a million. And then somebody else draws the line at $100 thousand? Where does the desire for criticizing how someone else spends their money stop?

I'm not going to trivialize the plight of the homeless, but there is no simple solution to a host of problems - mental illness, drug addiction, low IQ - and throwing money at it isn't necessarily going to solve the problem. Being married to a social worker and at one time owning over 50 low income rental units, I've had a pretty good sampling of the situation, and I have no idea what to do other than to do the best with the funds and abilities you've got and try to make the world a better place in whatever way you can. And let other people do the same.

July 12, 2021 at 6:07 PM

Take up the mantle Beacher, get down from your soapbox, get off this theme park discussion board and go help the homeless. We have faith in you. To the moon!

July 12, 2021 at 6:23 PM

@Tim Hillman - Thanks for your well-written reply. I'm a big fan of Space travel. I remember when Alan Shepard became the first American in space (15 minute flight!) and when John Glenn became the first person to orbit the Earth and when Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever set foot on the moon. So I'm for what Branson did. Innovation and technology are important. My criticism is about what he and the other billionaires choose not to do - to help those who are most in need.

You wrote: "Are we okay because we're not billionaires or do you draw the line at a billion?"

I draw the line at someone who hoards more money than they could possibly need while there are others who desperately need it. I know solving the homeless issue is complicated. But I see none of these billionaires even trying to help.

July 13, 2021 at 11:23 AM

@Beacher: Depending on the stock price, Branson’s net worth hovers between 5 and 6 billion dollars. That’s a lot, but not the hoarding of billions of dollars like you say.

Most of these billionaires’ wealth is on paper. That is, their companies are perceived to be worth this much in stock. For them to give larger portions of their wealth they would need to sell off chunks of their companies, and to do that they would need to find other individuals or companies rich enough to buy them. Then the cycle continues.

July 13, 2021 at 12:53 PM

Branson has set up and donates to several charities, and those are just what is made public.
He is developing a product that generates large amounts of money from rich people. The money that he generates will pay wages up and down the supply chain, and he will be able to continue to generate money to give to charities.

Eventually the cost will(probably) come down to a level where a sub-orbital flight is within reach of the average family, or it will fade into oblivion as everyone who can afford it has done it and the novelty wears off. What we may be left with is an advancement in air travel that can lead to quicker flights, or more fuel efficient travel.

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