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The private space race has been on for a while now.
The attention has been on Space-X and Blue Origin with their reusable rockets.
But there's one private space program that's been doing things a little differently.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic
isn't building rockets at all – it's building spaceships.
Amid the loud rivalry between Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos,
amid the extravagance of self-landing rockets, and other displays,
Virgin Galactic achieved something that no other private space company ever has.
In 2014 it became the first to put an actual person in space on board its SpaceShipOne,
turning its pilot into an astronaut. And then on February 22nd 2019,
the VSS Unity reached space in a sub-orbital flight
carrying the first-ever passenger-astronaut on a private spacecraft.
The attention of space nerds everywhere,
long distracted by the self-landing rocket club, suddenly turned back to Virgin Galactic.
Questions abound! Is there a future in these strange air-launch spaceships?
Why is Richard Branson building spaceships at all?
And what other mad schemes lie in the future. And most importantly, when can WE go up?
Obviously, these are questions probably best answered by Richard Branson.
Now in classic eccentric billionaire style, Branson spends much of his time on his private island in the British Virgin Islands.
But my strange chance, through a series of
unusual events, I found myself on that island.
It's a long story for another time.
But I took the opportunity to sit Sir Richard down and blast him with questions.
This was all a little impromptu, so please bear with the audio.
So, congratulations are in order.
VSS Unity, SpaceShipTwo,
successfully kissed space
December 13th.
That, that's really incredibly exciting, a huge milestone in a very long project.
[RICHARD] Yeah, thank you. It was not only exciting it was quite a relief.
You know, it has been 14 years of
tears and joy. and it was just fantastic that two wonderful now-astronauts
managed to get into space. And we've got another test flight just coming up.
And then we've a couple more test flights. Then we'll move the whole operation to New Mexico where we've got this beautiful spaceport
I'm hoping to go up in July. And then have many others who've signed up can go up in the years to come.
[MATT] Well, I would say that's brave of you for proving the reliability by going up yourself before sending other people up.
But I have a feeling you wouldn't miss it.
[RICHARD] The reason we built a spaceship and a spaceship company was because I wanted to go up.
[MATT] OK, wanting to go to space is a pretty good reason to build a spaceship.
But Richard followed up with what sounds closer to his true motivation.
[RICHARD] Everybody I know who's been into space who said it was
earth changing, to be able to be in space looking back on it.
There's a lovely book called The Overview Effect which
is infused with all these people who've been into space. And also, space I think can do a lot to protect the Earth.
We're also going to be putting up
big arrays of satellites around the world to connect people who are not connected. And those satellites could check out on
illegal fishing boats that are ravaging the ocean. We can start monitoring the reefs in a systematic way.
There's an awful lot of good that has already come out of space and will come out in the years to come.
[MATT] This is a stark difference to the motivations of Musk & Bezos, who have talked many times about
the importance of an interplanetary humanity – they want to colonize the worlds.
Branson, it seems, wants to save this one. Well that sounds noble
but if you've been following Virgin Galactic at all, you'll know that its business model is to sell tickets for rides into space.
Your first strategy though has been space tourism.
Can you say something about why
where this is clearly the first
kind of
commercial approach in your mind?
[RICHARD] There's only been since the Space Shuttle began
about 500 people who are astronauts who've had the chance to go to space.
We believe that if we can get the price at the right level, that there are
thousands & thousands of people would love to become astronauts.
And I think that can,
if we if we're right about that, we can build more and more spaceships.
And that means we can
we hope we can generate funds where we can then start thinking about point-to-point travel at great speeds.
And overriding all of this, both space and point-to-point travel and satellites in space, is a desire to
bring the environmental
effect down to an absolute minimum. So we can put somebody into space
for about the same environmental effect of sending somebody, one person, on a plane from London to New York and back. And because we're
air-launching our rockets to put satellites into space,
that's much more environmentally friendly than a big giant rocket on the ground going to space
[MATT] It's very exciting. Space planes are intrinsically
more science-fictiony than rockets. And I think they're inspiring in that sense.
I love these images of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo dropping off and flying up.
[RICHARD] I think somehow
if you're going to go into space you should be on a spaceship.
[MATT] Let's take a look at what humanity's first private spacecraft looks like, and why it might be the solution to affordable space access.
This is the VSS Unity on its second trip to space on February 22nd.
Unity is dropped at 15,000 meters by its carrier, White Night, after which it blasts
it's rocket engine sending it into a sub-orbital flight.
Unity's first two space flights took it to around
83 and 90 kilometers respectively. For reference 80 kilometers above sea level is the boundary of space used by the U.S.
This is still below the 100 kilometer Karman Line, an alternate definition to the space boundary.
But Unity is designed to hit a 110 kilometers in standard operations.
After a few minutes in space the craft re-enters and lands. It never reaches orbital velocity
so it's low speed reentry is less fraught than say the space shuttle.
Unity is actually the second of the SpaceShipTwo class space planes.
The first, Enterprise, was lost along with one of its pilots in a tragic crash in 2014.
The previous generation, SpaceShipOne, was actually the first private piloted craft to cross the Karman Line in 2004
There is some incredible engineering genius behind this craft, most of which is thanks to aerospace engineer Burt Rutan.
But the key innovation is the whole air-launch thing.
It's worth a quick word on. Obviously the space plane itself needs less fuel than a craft launched from the ground.
But why is air-launching from a plane more efficient than using booster rockets?
Well, the real key is that planes are more efficient than rockets at low altitude. As well as a
combustible fuel as an energy source,
rockets need to carry an oxidant to burn that fuel and a reaction mass – that's what you blast out to propel the rocket forward.
Planes, on the other hand, can use air as both oxidant and reaction mass.
They only need to carry the energy supply which is usually a combustible fuel, but could also
eventually be electricity. In addition, an air-launch craft can be
optimized for the low pressure of that altitude,
rather than have to operate at a range of pressures.
Whether air launch can beat out reusable rockets for actually putting things into orbit
remains to be seen. But the technique is looking great for sub-orbital travel. And this is what Richard means when he says
point-to-point travel. These space-kissing trajectories could one day allow us to travel halfway across the globe in a couple of hours.
Perhaps in the future everyone who travels overseas will also become an astronaut. But I'm less patient than that
When do WE get to go to space?
There are 500 past astronauts.
You already have a couple of hundred more than that signed up to fly to space with Virgin Galactic.
So you're going to more than double the number of astronauts that there were, in short order.
There's a price tag, a quarter million dollar per ticket.
Do you see this as something that the average person is going to be able to do?
[RICHARD] Yeah, I think
if you compare it to commercial aviation,
to cross the Atlantic in the 20s cost roughly the equivalent of a quarter million dollars today. Over the hundred years since
the price has come down.
So if we're right in believing that a
spaceship company is going
to be successful and we can attract people who are willing to pay
the quarter of a million dollars that we currently charge, then
we can start building more and more spaceships. And as you build more spaceships the price can start coming down
So 25 years from now, I hope that a lot of young people watching
this program will be able to afford to go to space and will become astronauts then.
That's a very exciting thing for them to look forward to.
[MATT] So there you have it.
Maybe 25 years, earlier if you get rich. Richard Branson is 68 and has been waiting a long time for this.
So I guess we can hold out a bit longer.
Okay, so we have sub-orbital joyrides and saving the world by improving our access to space.
But what about the far future?
Richard shared a pretty unique vision with us.
[RICHARD] You know, my dream will be to
let me start the Virgin Hotel.
Either just off the Moon or on the Moon.
No slightly just off the Moon. People who stay at our hotel will be able to
will have these lovely glass pods where they can see the Moon clearly from their pods.
And then we can have little spaceships that can
whisk them around the moon and back in the evenings for dinner.
[MATT] You've got these beautiful electric buggies here on the islands,
they're fun. These would be
[RICHARD] Yeah, so you can program it just to go a few hundred feet above the Moon's surface.
I love to dream. In the years to come,
either ourselves or Elon or Jeff Bezos,
we will be looking at a deeper and deeper space exploration. But in order to afford that we need
thousands of people to be able to sign up to go into space. And then use the resources to
expand into deeper space exploration.
[MATT] Sir Richard, thank you the talking to us, but thank you mostly for dreaming for us, and with us.
It could be a very exciting future.
[RICHARD] It will be a very exciting future. And thank you for inspiring us with your knowledge, it's fantastic.
He's the only person who calls me "Sir Richard" nobody else calls me "Sir Richard".
I heard it once before when I was walking down a New York street.
I thought it was a Shakespearean play taking place.
[MATT] I don't meet enough Knights. I'm going to call him Sir Richard.
[RICHARD] Cheers, thanks so much. [MATT] Thank you.
[MATT] SIR Richard Branson's long quest to send himself, and before too long many of the rest of us into space, is
reaching its fruition, with lofty goals ahead.
Branson has said that he'll go up in July. And while the first paying passengers aren't yet scheduled,
presumably they'll follow when it's as safe as these things can be.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk is hot on Richard Branson's heels. On March 2nd
SpaceX's Dragon 2 spacecraft made its first successful trip to space, and not on a sub-orbital trajectory.
It actually docked with the International Space Station.
This is the first private spacecraft
designed to carry humans to make it into true orbit. Now Dragon 2 didn't have passengers on this test,
but in July it will. The private space race is heating up.
It's a hell of a time to be alive, watching humanity's first tentative steps off the Earth, and into the fringes of space time.
Hey everyone, before we get to comments
I want to let you know about the new PBS Digital Studios show, Sound Field.
Sound Field is a music show that gives a complete breakdown of songs and artists in every genre
from pop, classical, rap, jazz, electronic, country, rock, and more. And this week
they have a very mathy episode on the Fibonacci Sequence and Golden Ratio in music and how its influenced
everyone from Bela Bartok to Queen to Drake.
Alright, last week we explored the bad science of perpetual motion machines
and announced the winners of the perpetual motion challenge. Check them out,
their brilliant.
Okay, let's see what you had to say.
HitAndMissLab points out that atoms are perpetual motion machines,
and there are hydrogen atoms that have been ticking for the entire age of the universe.
Well, I guess you could call the atom the best possible perpetual motion machine of the Third Kind.
The type that can keep on ticking without energy input or output.
But even these eventually fail.
Electrons escape their orbits by quantum tunneling, and protons themselves may eventually decay.
Mark Segal and Pieces'O'Cake Maleck asked what if the cog part of the Brownian ratchet is in a vacuum?
Now to remind you, the Brownian ratchet has this flywheel that turns a cog
due to random motions of particles hitting the flywheel.
And there's a latch that allows the cog to turn only in one direction.
If the cog half of the device is at the same temperature or higher,
It can be shown that it's just as likely to turn backwards as forwards when the latch raises.
So, what if the cog is in a vacuum, so there are no particles to turn it backwards?
Well, the cog itself is made of particles that vibrate thermally.
A device light enough to rotate its flywheel due to being hit by individual particles will also have a lot of internal
thermal vibration. Even in a vacuum, that internal vibration is enough to randomize its rotational motion.
In short, nature will always find a way to ruin our free lunch.
A few of you chastised us for putting the ElectroBOOM video that debunks perpetual motion machines
alongside all of the other videos that actually claim to have built one.
So yeah, we put a shout-out to ElectroBOOM's channel in text.
And we thought that that text made it clear that we think he's a genius, and you should all watch his videos.
Apparently that text wasn't clear enough. So let me say it again:
Go watch ElectrOBOOM.
A couple of you referenced Ginsberg's Theorem.
Allen Ginsberg's interpretation of the three laws of thermodynamics.
It goes like this:
Law 1: you can't win.
Law 2: you can't break even.
And Law 3: You can't stop playing.
So you can't get energy from nothing.
You'll always lose energy as entropy increases. And you can never not have some entropy.
In other words, you can never beat the house.
But remember, the house is the entire universe.
We can still win individual hands now and then at the expense of other players. Like by stealing their aces
aka energy, and giving them your 2's aka entropy, and
Yeah, this is where we leave particle gambling metaphors to the great poets.