It’s rare for such announcements to get our attention, but Land Rover’s revelation that it had become the first global partner for Virgin Galactic was worthy of further investigation. After all, just how can an SUV maker lend expertise to a firm looking to commercialise space travel for the first time?
Officially the deal, announced by Jaguar Land Rover marketing chief Phil Popham and Virgin Galactic visionary Richard Branson and CEO George Whitesides alongside the unveiling of the Discovery Vision Concept in New York, is designed to “inspire young people across the globe to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology”.
Land Rover could tell Virgin Galactic a few stories on adventures and creating go-anywhere (on land, anyway) vehicles, but this is not a partnership based on tangible technology exchanges. It’s one all about inspiring future engineers, the kudos of being associated with one another, and for me it was an excuse to find out just what Virgin Galactic is trying to achieve.
Enter pilot Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci, one of the pilots set to imminently undertake test flights of the Virgin Galactic 'SpaceShipTwo' spacecraft ahead of taking the first customers – the first of which being Branson himself – in the coming months.
Around 700 people have so far paid the $250,000 fee to get on one the flights, which can take up to six people at a time plus four pilots, two to fly the mothership to 50,000ft, and then two to control the rocket that fires off from the mothership and into space – “as high as we can go”, according to Sooch – as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere for a safe landing.
The whole experience will last a couple of hours, and ultimately daily flights are planned once production of motherships increases. Costs should come down then, too.
Sooch, an ex-US air force man, has flown up to 70,000ft in his career where less than one per cent of the Earth’s atmosphere remains above you. From up there, you can see the curvature of the Earth. He’s a remarkably friendly, modest and matter of fact man, keen to remind this “really is rocket science” when answering questions on timescales and how close this is to reality.