Meet the Private Space Whiz Who’s Blasting Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson is ‘making a mistake,’ Zero2Infinity chief says
José Mariano López-Urdiales is something of a rival to Richard Branson in the private space industry. Instead of using rocket ships, he wants to sail tourists into the stratosphere inside balloon-lifted capsules before plunging them safely back to Earth.
He’s also one of the most high-profile entrepreneurs in the industry to criticize Branson and Virgin Galactic’s handling of the catastrophic—and fatal—crash of SpaceShipTwo.
“I see a lot of people saying ‘we have to support commercial space, we are in it together, this is not the time for questioning, this is the time for unity’ and all that,” López-Urdiales tells War Is Boring.
“But you know, I don’t think you have to support somebody when he’s making a mistake.
“That’s not tough love. That’s not how you deal with your friends.”
López-Urdiales knows a thing or two about space. The son of a prominent Spanish astrophysicist, he studied astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—before going on to work for Boeing and the European Space Agency. Today he’s the head of the private space company Zero2Infinity.
He’s not just worried passengers turning away from private space flights—like the Virgin Galactic travelers asking for refunds. He’s also worried about investors shying away from the private space industry altogether.
“[Virgin Galactic] had five years with money in the bank from the Sheikh, and what they’ve done in five years is not very impressive,” López-Urdiales adds, referring to Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and a heavyweight Virgin Galactic investor.
“Having $390 million and just going to 22 kilometers, then destroying it? That is not a very good value for the money, for any investors.”
While it’s still not exactly clear what happened to cause the crash, but here’s what we do know.
SpaceShipTwo’s journey begins when it leaves the ground attached underneath the jet-powered White Knight Two. After SpaceShipTwo separates from White Knight Two at 50,000 feet, it fires its hybrid-fuel rocket and ascends into the upper atmosphere on a sub-orbital trajectory. Its two tail booms then fold upwards into a V-shaped configuration, like two feathers, which keeps the plane stable during its descent back to Earth.
In the seconds before the crash, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said one of the pilots prematurely unlocked a device controlling the booms while SpaceShipTwo ascended.
This would have produced enormous structural instabilities at rocket-powered speeds—and in heavier air—than the v-shape booms were ever meant to handle. This caused the plane to rip apart.
That seemed to end early speculation of engine problems—like a repeat of a 2007 engine explosion which killed three engineers working for Virgin Galactic contractor Scaled Composites. It also seems to rule out problems with a new plastic-based fuel, which was in use for the first time during the fatal flight.
But this doesn’t mean the engine didn’t have anything to do with the accident, López-Urdiales says. On Nov. 3, the NTSB walked back earlier claims that the pilot triggered a mechanism to deploy the booms too soon.
Rather, he activated a mechanism to unlock the booms, but did not activate a second mechanism needed to deploy the booms.
“There are several ways the engine could have affected the flight,” he says. “The biggest concern—the one that caused the most modifications of the engine—wasn’t that the engine had a tendency to blow up, which it did.”
“It was the vibrations that the engine caused. This could have caused some failures of the tail boom section.”
For these reasons, López-Urdiales doesn’t think Virgin’s hybrid rocket engine is the way to go. Better to use methane. But rockets also involve too many variables, too many moving parts—all while handling the complex aerodynamics of re-entry flight while packing explosive propellants. A single point of failure and people die.
Instead, he aims to send tourists in a pressurized, balloon-carried, detachable pod some 22 miles up. His pitch is that travelers will see the same view—the curvature of the Earth with a black sky overhead—with the trip being much safer, cheaper and less harmful for the environment.
That he’s criticizing Branson raises questions whether he’s trying to boost his project—called Bloon—at Virgin Galactic’s expense, no less after a fatal crash. But López-Urdiales counters with the claim that Virgin Galactic’s failures are not just damaging the company, but “it’s because I want them to succeed, so there’s more capital flowing into my industry,” he says.
“If they had listened to a lot of other people, they would have a system that works,” he adds. “Then maybe Virgin would have already flown 500 people, and they would be going IPO in the NASDAQ and they would be giving a billion dollars to the Sheikh in return, instead of $390 million,” he says.
“Then a company like mine, that is offering an alternative way to experience the planet and see the Earth, would have a much easier job finding capital.”
But isn’t the case that the two companies are fighting for the same customers? There’s only so many rich tourists willing to spend tens of thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of dollars on a ticket to the final frontier. And there’s only so many companies in the commercial spaceflight business. But López-Urdiales thinks there’s plenty of demand to go around, if the industry can find the funding.
“It’s not a problem of demand,” he says. “It’s a problem of availability of capital. The demand is absolutely huge. That’s why the Russians can charge $60 million for a seat,” he says.
Until 2010, a cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency rented out seats on Soyuz capsules to tourists.
Russia halted the program in 2010, due to increased crew sizes at the International Space Station. López-Urdiales is also aiming at adventurous-minded and newly-wealthy Chinese and Arab tourists—a different set from Virgin Galactic’s American and European customers.
This has to do, he believes, with a philosophical difference. Bloon is based in Barcelona, and López-Urdiales sees the dream of rocket-powered sub-orbital flights as more of an American attraction, with roots going back to Alan Shepard’s famous sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961.
Shepard’s flight came after the Soviet Union blasted Yuri Gagarin—the first human in space—into orbit. While a landmark for space flight in the United States, Shepard’s flight never resonated as strongly outside America.
“The U.S. population is very sensitive to sub-orbital flight because of historical reasons, but the rest of the world isn’t,” he says.
One problem with López-Urdiales’ balloon—he’s already flown a prototype 20 miles high—is that it can’t reach the coveted 62-mile Karman line, which marks the boundary with outer space.
SpaceShipTwo aimed to go this high, though its customer contracts stated a minimum altitude of 50 miles.
For the balloon ride—aside from a brief period during descent before the pod’s parachutes deploy—there’s also no weightlessness. But he doesn’t think it’s particularly relevant, and that the Karman line is … well, over-hyped as a sightseeing destination.
“There’s nothing going on there,” he says. “There’s no welcome-to-space banner, you know? Nothing happens there.”
Instead, he’s trying to sell the experience of seeing Earth as astronauts more or less do already, without literally going into space.
Think more Felix Baumgartner and less Alan Shepard. While Virgin Galactic is trying something exponentially more dangerous and expensive. Then when there’s an inevitable catastrophe, comes a great sucking sound of investors leaving the private space industry.
“This is not a zero-sum game,” he says. “It’s about having people going up and making this popular. And this will lead to more public funds, and more private funds for space so your goals will happen sooner—if there is a realistic path.”
“And that’s exactly how the Soviet Union did it. Way before they launched Gagarin, they were doing high-altitude balloon flights with humans, and doing very interesting scientific work with that. And they were heroes of the Soviet Union, these people.
“Of course it was eclipsed with the space race, but it’s the truth—that’s how they did it.”