Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Space Flight For Sale

How Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are rewriting the rules of space travel

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.

Virgin's Branson was following Rutan's progress and, after the SpaceShipOne success, formed a new aerospace company with him that would offer space tourism by licensing the spacecraft designs created by Rutan at Scaled. The latest result of that venture is the first manned, commercial, space tourism launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo, and the orbital craft it will launch, SpaceShipTwo. The former was unveiled with great media hype in Mojave this past July.

The WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle is impressive in its size and beauty. True to other Rutan innovations, this vehicle presents bold new concepts. Its gangly twin-boom tail design can carry a mix of passengers and commercial payloads in side-by-side fuselages. It's constructed 100% of carbon composites and features ultra-efficient jet engines. The craft's wingspan is about equal to that of a WWII B-29 bomber and its all-composite wing spar is so innovative that much about it is secret.

Branson (left) teamed with Rutan (right) to form a new aerospace company that will offer space tourism to "ordinary" people. The two pose aboard VMS Eve, which features Galactic Girl as its nose art, a homage to Evette Branson, Sir Richard's mother.
Standing there, watching the odd yet graceful launch vehicle roll to a stop in front of that awed media, it was hard not to see that Rutan and Branson are rewriting the rules of space travel. Branson declared, "What we're doing is the most important industrial project of the 21st century," and it was easy to agree.

When Lina goes into space in about 18 months, if all goes right, she'll be inside the six-seat SpaceShipTwo—a larger version of SpaceShipOne. She'll be carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, under the wing of the launch vehicle, WhiteKightTwo. SpaceShipTwo will drop from the mother ship and ignite its hybrid rocket engines, propelling it to 350,000 feet in 90 seconds at Mach 3.

"Then there will be silence," says Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. "A pure silence never experienced before." Passengers will enjoy weightlessness and will be able to leave their seats and float around the cabin, with its carefully designed observation windows and inclined seats. From her lofty perch, Lina will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and view our planet as few have.

The craft will begin its reentry into Earth's atmosphere with its unique feathering device and will convert back into a winged shape for landing. It will glide, unpowered, to a landing at either Mojave or Virgin Galactic's new spaceport in New Mexico. The future promises longer and higher orbital flights and even space hotels and resorts for overnight stays.


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