Space Flight For Sale
How Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are rewriting the rules of space travel
|Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan walk by VMS (Virgin Mothership) Eve, the first WhiteKnightTwo built by Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic.|
While most little children around the world were being read to sleep with soothing fairy tales, Lina Borozdina was getting tucked in for the night with stories of space travel. Her father would sit next to her bed and conjure up wild tales of how his daughter would stow away in a rocket bound for space, only to be discovered when zero gravity betrayed her and caused her to float out into the cabin. Each night, his stories would take Lina on different adventures into the far reaches of space. In doing so, he planted the seeds of a dream.
Today, Lina Borozdina is one of the first 100 people to have plunked down $200,000 for the privilege of going into space aboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo, conceived and built by Burt Rutan’s famed Scaled Composites (www.scaled.com) in Mojave, Calif. But Lina’s story is about more than just paying money for a space ride; hers is a tale of the American dream. It’s about how innovative engineering, private funding and savvy marketing have come together to create the most exciting space race since NASA launched the first Mercury mission in 1961.
|Lina Borozdina, a biochemist who mortgaged her home to finance her space dream despite a fear of flying, poses next to a model of SpaceShipTwo, which will take her into space.|
Lina was born in the seaport town of Odessa, on the Black Sea, in what’s now Ukraine and was then part of the Soviet Union. Lina lost her mother to illness, but her father, Yuri, was a KGB agent whose own flying background fueled Lina’s fascination with the sky. “At five, I knew constellations, and I was reading my first science-fiction stories at six,” recalls Lina.
Lina’s dreams of space flight, though, would be difficult to fulfill. “I was a sickly child,” she says in her slight Russian accent, “so I would never have been a cosmonaut.” Instead, she concentrated on her education and put those nagging thoughts of space into her back pocket for a time. She earned her B.S. in chemistry and her master’s in biochemistry. Then, at 19, she came to the United States seeking political asylum. “I came to the States in 1991 with three pairs of underwear and a T-shirt,” she laughs. “I went to Pasadena, California, and got a job washing dishes.” With her advanced degrees, she eventually followed the biotech industry to San Diego and found a career there as a scientist. She met her husband and was settling into life as a bioscientist when the space dreams came back. A television commercial for Virgin Galactic was offering space flights to “ordinary” people. Within weeks, Lina and her husband were headed to Los Angeles to talk with Virgin Galactic about being a space passenger.
It’s no news that Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic (www.virgingalactic.com) as part of his successful Virgin Group to offer suborbital space flight to the paying masses. The key to the Virgin venture was the success of Rutan’s innovative and soul-stirring SpaceShipOne. In October 2004, SpaceShipOne launched into history, becoming the first manned, private spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within 14 days, thus claiming the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The X Prize was modeled after the Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won by flying solo across the Atlantic in 1927.
The innovative SpaceShipOne is constructed entirely of carbon-composite materials. The spaceship’s thrust is provided by mixing two innocuous and nontoxic substances: nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) and rubber, yielding tremendous power. The spacious cabin provides a shirtsleeve environment yet is designed as a kind of wraparound “spacesuit” for occupants. The craft reenters Earth’s atmosphere using a pneumatic-actuated “feather” that slows it down and provides stability without a heat shield. Finally, SpaceShipOne is launched from a “mother ship” and not a massive, billion-dollar launch complex from NASA.
Beyond the technical marvels is the simple fact that this feat was accomplished by private industry, not some budget-gulping government monolith. Rutan created Scaled Composites in 1982 with a small group of young, skilled engineers, and continues to wow the aerospace world from his small corner out in the Mojave Desert of California. Investor Paul Allen provided initial money to get Rutan’s mind-boggling designs off the computer and into the sky, but it was all government-free.