GRAPEVINE, Texas — Virgin Orbit founder Richard Branson made a surprise appearance Saturday at the Airlift Tanker Association’s annual symposium outside Dallas, Texas, addressing members of the air mobility community and backing the idea of future cargo operations in space.
“We’ve certainly got a lot to learn with you," Branson told the audience during a Q&A session with Gen. Maryanne Miller, the commander of Air Mobility Command.
Branson, the world-renowned entrepreneur and private space pioneer, was in attendance to discuss ways to increase innovation within the air mobility force.
“We’re speaking with your company and I think there’s lot of opportunity, so we’ll keep the dialog open,” Miller said. “There’s very fertile ground there.”
Earlier in the symposium, Miller had confirmed the Air Force was in talks with Virgin Orbit and other space companies, like Blue Origin and SpaceX, but that no resources were being committed as of yet.
“We’re continuing, our [planning] community is going to continue to have discussions with the space companies, and we have agreed to just sit with them and just stay up to date with where they’re going with their future plans, to just be at the table with them” she said in a Friday roundtable with reporters. “We won’t commit any resources, but we’ve committed to work with them to see how quickly they progress through that."
The idea of space cargo operations isn’t necessarily new to AMC, as the organization’s former commander, Gen. Carlton Everhart, floated the idea in August during a Defense Writers Group breakfast.
“Think about this. Thirty minutes, 150 metric tons [and] less than the cost of a C-5,” he speculated at the time.
But there are concrete signs the military is considering the idea. On Oct. 19, the U.S. Transportation Command asked commercial space companies to join collaborative studies on “Responsive Spacelift Supporting Department of Defense Mobility Operations.”
The solicitation asked for companies to provide several pieces of information, including projections of future capabilities, affordability estimates, types of operations that could use spacelift and how long it would take to move cargo around the globe in real-world scenarios.
It also asks for possible launch facility locations, business plans and how to protect cargo against various threats, like cyber or electromagnetic countermeasures.
While nothing resembling a commitment came of Branson’s remarks, he did leave airmen with one particular message.
“Screw it, just do it,” he proclaimed to laughter and applause.