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Virgin Galactic Space Travel

One small step for a spacecraft, but, a giant leap for space travel

July is a big month for private space travel. Yesterday, Sir Richard Branson traveled into space, to “evaluate the customer spaceflight experience” aboard Virgin Galactic‘s VSS Unity. In nine days, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will travel into space aboard his commercial space travel company’s, Blue Origin, first flight.

Both flights offer slightly different experiences, with one being a spaceplane and the other a pure rocket. They are similar in that they herald in a new era of space travel where private citizens can be space tourists, or as the companies market the trip, astronauts. Historically, the coveted astronaut title and experience has been exclusive to government entities (cosmonauts – Russia, taikonauts – China). Which is why, although Virgin’s VSS Unity and Blue Origin’s New Shepard may be simply seen as incremental spacecraft developments, they represent a larger shift in our planet’s spacefaring capabilities.

The Experience

Virgin Galactic’s maiden flight involved a ‘mothership,’ named VMS Eve, conventionally taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, with VSS Unity mated beneath. Just below 50,000 feet VMS Eve released VSS Unity which ignited its hybrid rocket engine for 60 seconds, accelerating to Mach 3.1 in order to reach its maximum altitude, or apogee, of 86 kilometres (nominally the company aims for 90 kilometres).

Stages of flight Infographic 2 .jpg
Virgin Galactic flight profile

While transitioning through apogee, the vessel’s six passengers may unstrap and experience micro gravity for a few minutes before settling in for a unique deceleration involving folding wings, and a human-guided descent and landing back at Spaceport America about thirty minutes after take off.

Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft VMS Eve and VSS Unity

Blue Origin’s trip is a vastly different experience. New Shepard is a fully autonomous rocket (i.e. no pilots), launching vertically from Blue Origin’s site in Texas like a conventional spaceflight for a 150-second rocket burn. When the fuel is expended the motor and fuel stage separate from the crew capsule, which continues to an apogee of just over 100 kilometres. Up to six passengers enjoy lie-flat seating with an almost panoramic view during their brief ten-minute journey. On descent, a parachute system brings the capsule back to land.

Blue Origin’s Mission NS-15 lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas


The two companies have both gone to lengths to validate that their trip is legitimately “spaceflight,” rather than simply high altitude. Blue Origin defines this as the internationally recognised Kármán line, 100 kilometres above Earth’s mean sea level. Virgin Galactic, however, use NASA’s and the US Air Force’s 80 kilometres above sea level as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Regardless, at either vessel’s apogee, there are no aerodynamic forces, and passengers and pilots alike are for all intents and purposes in space.

Whether a space tourist has earned the title of ‘astronaut’ is a matter of opinion. Technically, they have met an altitude criteria, but culturally, historically, and from a competency perspective a space tourist is not a professional astronaut. A space tourist will, however, need to have reasonable wealth to travel aboard either company’s offering. A ticket aboard Virgin Galactic’s flagship costs USD250,000, and Blue Origin’s experience is similarly priced, although not known exactly. As both systems mature costs may reduce.

What about Elon?

As an encore to July, September will see the launch of SpaceX’s Inspiration4, a proven Crew Dragon vehicle, for the world’s first all-civilian space ‘mission.’ Although SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, won’t be aboard – the experience has been paid for by Jared Isaacman, a successful entrepreneur and founder of Draken International, who has assembled a crew of three others, their backgrounds and ambitions reflecting the “mission pillars” of Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity (along with his of Leadership).

At a soon-to-be announced launch date (~September), Inspiration4 will launch into low earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket, from NASA’s historic launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Over three days the vessel will remain in orbit, with no specific mission but tourism.

The cost of the entire mission, going by SpaceX’s public list price, is upwards of USD62m – although the details have been kept private. All crew members will undergo reasonably extensive commercial astronaut training through SpaceX, including orbital mechanics, operating in microgravity and zero gravity environments, stress testing, emergency preparedness training, mission simulations, and learning about the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft systems.

Recruit your own 'crew' for the private Inspiration4 space mission with  this new fundraising campaign | Space
Rendering of Inspiration4, with a crew member peering out of the customised cupola in place of the standard docking port.

End of an era: Vale the Learjet – long live the business jet

They said I’d never build it; that if I built it, it wouldn’t fly; that if it flew, I couldn’t sell it. Well I did and it did and I could.

William P. Lear, founder of the Lear Jet Corporation, and designed of arguably the world’s first business jet.

On February 11, 2021, Bombardier, who purchased the Learjet company in 1990, announced an end to production of all Learjet private jets. This marks a sad milestone for aviation, for it heralds the end of an era. For decades, since the company’s first aircraft, the Learjet 23, the name Learjet was synonymous with private aviation, business aviation, and aviation leadership.

While the Learjet name may be consigned to history, fortunately business and private aviation manufacturing, innovations, and business models continue to thrive.

Learjet 75 Liberty
Bombardier Learjet 75 Liberty

History of Lear Jet

The first Learjet 23 was delivered in 1964. It was the brainchild of inventor, businessman, and high-school drop out William (Bill) Lear. Over 46 years Lear was granted over 120 patents, contributing significantly to radio and aviation. He is, however, best known for creating a new category of fast and efficient business jets, and a brand that to many is the definition of a business jet. Before Lear Jet there simply was no business or private jet category – VIPs, states-persons, and celebrities that could afford to fly privately were limited to airliner-type aircraft.

The Learjet 23’s genesis began in Switzerland in the 1940s, where the Flug- und Fahrzeugwehrke Altenrhein (FFA) company was developing a domestically designed and manufactured fighter jet – the FFA P-16. The P-16 was never introduced into service and the program cancelled in favour of the proven British Hawker Hunter – but Bill Lear saw promise in the aircraft’s fundamental design as a business jet, having previously and unsuccessfully based preliminary designs on a US experimental aircraft named the Mississippi State University XV-11 Marvel.

In 1960 Lear founded the Swiss American Aircraft Corporation in Switzerland and began work on the initially-named SAAC-23 Execujet. In 1962, frustrated by slow progress in Switzerland, Lear moved SAAC’s factory tooling to Wichita, Kansas and renamed the company the Lear Jet Corporation. Production began in 1962 with the first flight of the Learjet 23 taking placing the following year. On October 13, 1964, the first production aircraft was delivered and over a two year production run 101 Learjet 23s were delivered.

The Learjet makes sense
Aviation Week – 5 July 1965

Learjet Legacy

Fast forward 25 years, and it was the Learjet 31 that ultimately delivered on Lear’s vision of the definitive business jet.

Only 200 Learjet 31s were produced between 1988 and 2002, with many of these still in service. Often referred to as “the Porsche of the sky,” the 31 combines the empennage-mounted engine design with the distinctive “Longhorn” wing configuration. With seating for eight passengers, the jet is capable of climbing at over 5,000 feet per minute, reaching cruise altitude of 47,000 feet and 0.81 March in 28 minutes. A service ceiling of 51,000 feet puts the Learjet 31 in rarefied air. With efficient fuel consumption and field performance, both the Learjet 31 and the slightly upgraded 31A are still favoured by many passengers and operators today.

Learjet 31
Learjet 31

Having sold a significant portion of his company to the Gates Rubber Company in 1967, the Gates Learjet Corporation was acquired by Integrated Acquisition in 1987 and renamed the Learjet Corporation. In 1990, Bombardier Aerospace purchased the company and initiated a clean-sheet design and marketing of the “Bombardier Learjet Family.”

Celebrating the legend of the Learjet

The Learjet 60 was the first of this new lineage, followed by the Learjet 45. Similar to how the 31 revolutionised business aviation, the Learjet 45 fused the operating economics of a light business jet with the comfort of a mid-size jet, while remaining true to Learjet’s excellent performance. The Learjet 75 is the final jet to bear the Learjet name, with first delivery having taken place in 2013 and production ceasing this year.

Learjet 45
Learjet 45

The future of business aviation

The end of the Learjet marque is nostalgic, but should not be seen as a bellwether for the business aviation industry. For several decades, the business and private aerospace industry has been increasingly fragmenting – offering a relatively small pool of consumers an excessive amount of aircraft options. By comparison, the commercial aviation sector has consolidated to effectively two manufacturers – Airbus and Boeing. The private jet industry has several – Bombardier, Cessna, Dassault, Embraer, Gulfstream, and even Airbus Corporate Jets and Boeing Business Jets. For reference, Airbus and Boeing delivered 723 aircraft in 2020, while global business jet deliveries numbered 644.

Consolidation is a natural part of the evolution of any industry as technologies advance and market expectations grow.

Jensen & Copier, The Pros and Cons of Industry Consolidation, OEM Off-Highway, 31 Aug 2020

The business aviation industry is likely behind commercial aerospace in terms of industry consolidation maturity. A Deloitte 2017 analysis of the merger and acquisition trends in aerospace and defense anticipated (generally) that “aerospace and defense companies would increasingly look to M&A (and joint ventures) as a means to grow, specifically by expanding product portfolios, gaining new technical capabilities, and expanding into new geographies.”

Deans, Kroeger & Zeisel, The Consolidation Curve, Harvard Business Review, Dec 2002

This industry consolidation is good for operators, owners, and travelers, in bringing cost efficiencies and technological advances together. Competition is healthy, and we can expect there to remain a handful of business jet manufacturers; but some consolidation in a high-capital, regulatory intensive, and difficult to enter industry is beneficial for all.

While the brand may not be seen on aircraft beyond this year, over fifty years of Learjet’s innovations and progress will continue to serve Bombardier’s business aircraft competitive advantage, and deliver value to operators and travelers.

Learjet 35A
Learjet 35A