Lloyd’s Looks at Covering Virgin Galactic Space Flight

April 4, 2006

For centuries mankind dreamed of being able to fly. The Wright brothers may not have envisioned jet aircraft, let alone cattle car class, but they did initiate powered flight over 100 years ago. So with that mission accomplished, people now look for greater challenges, none more so than U.K. entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson. His “Virgin” name and logo graces everything from an airline to soft drinks, but now he’s planning on opening up space to the average, will they very rich average, person.

“By the end of the decade, Virgin Galactic – the most exciting development in the story of modern space history – is planning to make it possible for almost anyone to visit the final frontier at an affordable price,” says the opening blurb on the new venture’s Website: http://www.virgingalactic.com.

While the Wright brothers may not have had to worry about insuring their historic flight (which did end in a crash landing), Virgin Galactic certainly does, and none to soon, as the first space trip is tentatively scheduled for late 2008. It’s therefore somewhat logical to turn to Lloyd’s, the world’s oldest, but still one of the most innovative, markets when it comes to new and unusual risks.

A bulletin on the Lloyd’s Website (www.lloyds.com) notes that “Virgin is proposing to launch the space flights for tourists from a site in New Mexico, and media reports have indicated that Lloyd’s are among the insurers in talks about providing cover.”

It’s also no great surprise that specialist insurer Hiscox Plc.’s name is mentioned as a possible underwriter. Lloyd’s notes that Bruno Ritchie, director of the aerospace division at Hiscox Global Markets, wants first to determine if “the risk is an aviation or space risk.” He indicated that any insurance is “likely to be sought for the hull value of the spacecraft, with the price of cover dependent on the safety and reliability of the venture established through its testing phase, which will reportedly comprise 50 to 100 test flights.”

Ritchie further indicated that “third party liability cover may also be required to protect Virgin against claims from people living nearby the launch site in case of pollution or a crash occurring over their homes, while the many potential passengers who have registered an interest in paying $200,000 each for the space flights would require personal accident cover.”

However, Ritchie also expressed doubts that the industry would cover the passengers, who, at least initially, may have to travel at their own risk until a safety record for the flights is established.

Construction on the spacecraft is due to begin next month. The flights will be somewhat less than “galactic.” Virgin plans to give its passengers 20 minutes in space, with five minutes in a weightless state. Initially the flights are scheduled to launch once a week, eventually moving to once a day.

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