Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Space Flight For Sale

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

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.
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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.
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.

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.

spaceLina has now completed centrifuge training at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR) in Pennsylvania. Of the 270 or so passengers who are slated to fly, only 6% have had physiological issues. It’s fascinating that people of all ages are adapting to the rigors of space flight so readily. Whitehorn explains that space flight is perfectly fine for folks who aren’t in their prime. “We have done extensive research and found that it’s actually easier for the average person to deal with G-forces than it is for someone who is very fit. If you have a healthy circulatory system,” says Whitehorn, “age isn’t a factor whatsoever.”

To raise the $200,000 to pay for this adventure, Lina and her husband mortgaged their modest home. She laughs, “So far, I think I’m the only one who has done that. It’s funny, too, because I’m afraid of flying. It’s not really my thing.” She’s had some bad experiences in airliners and her scientific mind doesn’t like the way the airplanes flex and bend under stress. “If you’re not afraid of anything, then you’re stupid,” she says, sipping her coffee. “But space is a different thing. I’m very excited.”

Between Rutan, Branson, Lina and all her fellow pioneers, a new era in space has begun. This is the first generation of space tourists. For the first time in history, a kid who dreams of space can turn that dream into a reality. As space tourism grows and becomes more affordable, space will become just another destination for everyone to explore—not just a select few. As Branson himself said during the unveiling of his spacecraft, “I consider space to be the final frontier that is so essential to the future of civilization on this planet.”

For Lina Borozdina, her dream is finally coming true.


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