Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SpaceShipTwo Takes Off

In as little as two years, private space flight may be a reality—and NASA won’t be

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.


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