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June 25, 2011 – Richard Branson occasionally answers readers’ questions in his column. This week he explains why venturing to space is so important not only to the Virgin team, but also to the world.

Send yours to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com and it might be the inspiration for a future column. Please include your name and country.

Q: Your ambition to develop commercial space travel is exciting, but how do you match this with the concerns about the Earth and your efforts to foster sustainable behavior?

— Hans Lagerweij, president and CEO of Quark Expeditions

A: “The countdown to release…a moment of quiet…an overwhelming and enthralling howl matched with unimaginable acceleration to over 2,500 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. A sky transforming from blue to the deepest, darkest black…and then…silence…weightlessness…and, finally, a view you’ve seen many times before, but never with your own eyes in all its majesty…a perfect blue sphere, no boundaries, no borders…and just a tiny, fragile-looking ribbon of atmosphere.”

This sounds like a fantastic and vivid dream or a scene from a movie, but it is actually a description of the Virgin Galactic experience from our brochure. This vision has already captured the imaginations of the more than 430 people who have signed up for our first commercial space flights, which will take place within the next two years.

To put this into context: Since the first Soviet and American space missions took place 50 years ago, just over 500 people have reached space. Space travel has been limited to government agencies, which have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on developing the technologies that have enabled mankind’s first forays outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Virgin Galactic is pushing to make space travel possible for paying customers; in our first full year of operations, Virgin Galactic plans to carry more than 500 astronauts.

While the ticket prices have to be set high, these are no luxury trips or exotic adventures—we are using our space tourism efforts to further enhance our expertise in space travel. Parts of the space industry are being transferred to private companies as NASA’s space shuttle program shuts down (the final launch will take place in July). This change will particularly affect launches of satellites, which are instrumental in our communications network and to data-gathering, on everything from changing weather patterns to crop yields.

We should no longer rely on old, expensive, “dirty” technology to transport satellites into space. The industry must be modernized and made more sustainable, both for financial reasons and for the health of the planet. In response to this challenge, we have been developing a greener solution in Mojave, California—one that will have less impact on the environment and will be more cost effective. Our two-step launch process, which does not employ rockets until the aircraft reaches the stratosphere, uses less energy than other launch systems that rely on rockets to lift off from the ground.

The carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, flies like an airplane, lifting the secondary space plane to a height of 50,000 feet. It was built using a lightweight all-carbon-composite design and is powered by four Pratt and Whitney Canada PW308A engines; some of the most powerful, economic and efficient available. In time, as we learn more about how best to employ these technologies we are pioneering, we and other companies may be able to apply this knowledge in other areas of the space and airline industries.

In the second step of the launch, our rocket-powered space plane, SpaceShipTwo, detaches from the carrier plane at an altitude where the air is thinner and the space plane needs far less energy to reach suborbital space. The hybrid rocket motor is more efficient and flexible than previous models. The fuel is a solid rubber compound, and the oxidizer (the chemical that provides the oxygen to burn the fuel) is nitrous oxide in liquid form. This combination of solid and liquid fuels powers an economical rocket engine that can be controlled and shut down more easily than the solid-fuel rockets used in the 20th century. Its byproducts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and water vapor are preferable to those of the solid-fuel rockets, which burn ammonium compounds and aluminum, among other fuels.

A sustainable future includes space travel and industry in space, and for that reason, it is worth trying to develop these technologies to be energy-efficient and as low in emissions as possible. For our planet’s health, we need to reach for the skies when developing green technologies for the space industry as well.

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com. Please include your name and country in your question.

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