PRIVATE SPACE FLIGHT. Suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic to the edge of space will soon be a reality.
I don’t know about you, but for me, flying in space has always been the ultimate goal. Like so many other kids who grew up dreaming of a place in the sky, I fantasized about someday aviating outside the atmosphere.
Sadly, it appears that’s never going to happen, at least not for me. The American space program that was so aggressive in the 1960s slowed to a crawl after the seven Moon missions, and any chance I might have had to see space has evaporated. Senator John Glenn may have been able to wangle a shuttle seat in 1998 at age 77, but it’s highly unlikely I could pull off the same trick at 70. I applied for the Journalist in Space program in the early ’80s, but that was cancelled when teacher Christa McAuliffe was lost on Challenger in 1986.
Regular readers of these pages may recall that I was finally allowed to fly the space shuttle simulator a few months ago, the realization of a 20-year goal. I flew the only motion-based shuttle simulator in existence, a roughly $80-million machine, in June of last year, and reported on the experience in the November 2010 issue of Plane & Pilot.
With the current administration now essentially abandoning any plans to explore outside the atmosphere for at least another 10 years and likely putting some of NASA’s employees on the street, the conquest of space is being left to the Russians and the private sector. An agency that required 50 years to build is being quietly phased out.
Efforts by commercial space companies are being led by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.
The current plan is for Virgin Galactic to offer suborbital flights to 100 kilometers, the so-called “Kármán line” that signifies the threshold of space. Rutan has developed a two-component spacecraft. The eight-seat SpaceShipTwo remains coupled to the mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, to 50,000 feet, drops free, fires its own rockets and climbs to 100 kilometers, about 328,000 feet.
At FL3280, SpaceShipTwo presents its passengers with about six minutes of weightlessness, then, like the space shuttle, glides unpowered back to a landing, in this case, at Spaceport America, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M. The total flight will last about 3.5 hours. If flight testing goes well, the consortium hopes to make the first revenue flight in late 2012. Oh yeah, the current price per passenger is $200,000.
So far, 380 people have signed up for a flight into suborbital space, and Branson has committed to spend as much as $200 million in the next 10 years to transport 50,000 people to the edge of space.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the brash Branson, and I have great respect for Burt Rutan. I’ve known Rutan since flying with him in his first design, the VariViggen, at Mojave 37 years ago. I’ve followed his career through the VariEze/Long-EZ, Defiant, Beech Starship, Adam M-309 (Rutan’s 309th design—produced briefly as both a push/pull piston multi and an unconventional twin jet) and about a dozen other off-the-wall designs that do what they do better than practically anything else on the market.
Like all else Rutan has designed, the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combination is an unlikely machine that couldn’t have come from anyone else. The spacecraft’s fuselage is 60 feet long, and the interior is 90 inches wide (roughly the dimensions of a Falcon 900 corporate jet), so the six paying passengers in back all ride first class.
There are two windows adjacent to each seat to provide excellent viewing of the Earth below, and once the aircraft reaches maximum altitude, passengers will be allowed to leave their seat and float around the cabin during the short period of zero-G operation.
Rutan’s overriding concerns have always been safety and simplicity, and to that end, SpaceShipTwo does practically everything the shuttle does, only more efficiently and safer. WhiteKnightTwo is the largest carbon-composite aircraft ever built, with wings spanning 140 feet, and two, Pratt & Whitney, PW308A, FADEC-controlled jet engines on the outboard portion of each wing.
In its initial application, the mother ship will lift SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude, but Rutan and the team at Scaled Composites cleverly designed the aircraft with the capability to carry not only his own spacecraft but also a variety of other loads slung beneath the center wing section, up to 35,000 pounds. In other words, WhiteKnightTwo could be employed to help launch other spacecraft.
With its long wings, twin hull and slender configuration, WhiteKnightTwo looks delicate, though it’s anything but. The mother ship is capable of handling loads as high as six G’s, far above the two-G limit of most airliners.
By hitching a ride to 50,000 feet without expending any fuel at all, SpaceShipTwo tops 90% of the Earth’s atmosphere, which puts it above virtually all the weather and the vast majority of drag. When SpaceShipTwo’s pilots finally do bring the warp core on line, there’s far less resistance to the aircraft’s passage into the upper atmosphere, so the flight to suborbital height is quick and efficient, demanding minimal fuel in contrast to current spacecraft that launch from the ground.
In a sense, SpaceShipTwo’s flight starts at 50,000 feet, so the trip to 62 miles altitude is easier and consumes far less fuel than if launched from the ground. The aircraft is based on the previous Rutan SpaceShipOne that won the $10 million Ansari prize in 2004 for the first commercial flight to space.
In theory, the Rutan spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor, burning solid rocket propellant with nitrous oxide, is capable of flying at Mach 3.0, but not for long. The aircraft will have one mission and that’s to climb, baby, climb.
For reentry, Burt Rutan again went his own way. He designed his spacecraft with provisions for folding the lifting surfaces back and up 65 degrees, what he calls his tail-feathering system. The concept is similar to that of a shuttlecock that remains stable and bottom down in flight.
For reentry, the pilot simply feathers the tail to the 65-degree up position, and that configuration allows stable, automatic, near hands-off control of attitude with the fuselage maintained parallel to the horizon. The extreme low weight of the carbon-composite spacecraft and the high drag keep reentry speed minimal and skin temperatures so low that heat shielding isn’t necessary.
When the spacecraft reaches about 70,000 feet, the crew deploys the tail to its original configuration, and the aircraft becomes a conventional glider again.
Currently, the number of possible launch and recovery sites is limited to a half-dozen locations around the world. The New Mexico Spaceport America and the Mojave Spaceport are the two current U.S. civilian space-operating centers. A Scandinavian space center is proposed at Spaceport Sweden, and Spaceport U.K. is planned for RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
Such a flight will be a dream come true for the very rich, and it will be the ultimate gift for the pilot who has everything from his or her significant other. That significant other had better have a very high limit on their American Express card.