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Virgin Galactic

Will Virgin Galactic get into space?

Richard Branson has something like 600 customers signed up – and paid-up, in some cases – for one of his short suborbital trips. However, while he is understandably anxious to get on with it, he really wants them all to live to tell the tale; crashes are bad public relations, and in any case he and his family are first in the queue.

To Virgin’s credit, caution has been the by-word in development, and its talk of starting commercial flights in 2013 turned out to be premature. For now, Branson is saying it will be a “go” in 2014, but do not be disappointed if the first fare-paying passengers are not aloft until 2015. So far, the air-launched, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo (SS2) has made just two flights powered by its rocket motor, and space – 100km up – remains a long way away.

Higher and faster has a way of throwing up surprises, and there is no indication that Virgin Galactic is pushing hard to push the envelope.

Virgin Galactic may be channelling the X-15 programme, but it has neither the government cash nor the Cold War imperative to take any undue risks. Which, of course, is as it should be. However, if the next flights go to plan, SS2 and one of its test pilots may well mark 2014 with a peek at the topside of the atmosphere.


Has China’s Moon landing kicked off a new space race?

Do not get too excited, but 2014 should at least see some rhetorical hotting-up of a new space race, now that China is starting the New Year with a drive-around of the six-wheeled rover delivered by its Chang'e-3 mission. Following its five-day crossing from Earth and the first soft landing since the Soviet Luna-24 mission in 1976, Beijing has plenty to boast about, and – perhaps – much to look forward to.

It is widely believed that the country is thinking seriously about undertaking a manned mission at some point in the future, and presumably wants the kudos of being the first to return after the last US sortie in 1972.

Washington DC politics are keeping enough cash flowing to allow for the tentative development of a huge launcher – dubbed SLS – and an astronaut-bearing capsule capable of planting another Stars and Stripes in the Lunar dust. However, the prospects of NASA being equipped with the money, manpower and political will to return to the Moon any time in the remotely foreseeable future look truly dim.

After all, USA’s George W Bush-era Mars mission plans got scrapped by Barack Obama, who has replaced them with more or less nothing, unless a vague notion of visiting an asteroid counts as a Kennedy moment. Meanwhile, a brief Moon noise can be heard from Russia now and again, but there is basically zero indication of anything more than wishful thinking in Moscow.

However, is the path to Moon glory really wide open if the Chinese want it? American and Russian pride being what it is (delicate and bristly), Chang'e-3 might just spur some more serious talk of reclaiming the initiative. Do not expect the Russians to perk up much, but the Americans just might start building the rhetorical momentum to look seriously at a return to the Moon.

In an election year, an embattled president can probably count on popular support for a new space policy that gives NASA a visible, emotionally vivid purpose – which, arguably, it has not had since the Apollo programme wound down. If the population at large warms to the idea of a new Moon programme to show the Chinese who is boss, Republican support would flow like pre-sequestration pork.

Ultimately, Americans like NASA and NASA is very good at spreading itself across more or less every state in the union. Which politicians are not itching to push more jobs into their constituencies, especially when those jobs scream American Pride?

What an irony, then, that a Chinese Moon rover – worthy achievement, but no match for NASA’s current Curiosity mission to Mars – might just provide a bridge to bipartisan agreement in Washington.

Watch out for surprises. Google’s Lunar X-Prize competition – $40 million in prizes for a private operator who can land safely on the surface of the Moon, travel 500m (1,640ft) above, below, or on the surface, and send back two “Mooncasts” to Earth before the end of 2015 – has attracted serious efforts.