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.
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.
Lina 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.
|Not Your Grandfather’s Airplanes
Advances in space technology are propelling GA in new directions
Burt Rutan and his team aren’t the only innovative designers experiencing success with composites and groundbreaking designs. Many of the current developments and intriguing aerospace designs are also impacting general aviation. Carbon composites, more efficient engines and alternative fuel sources are causing the GA market to respond with enthusiasm.
Epic Aircraft is a shining example of finding success at the leading edge. The Bend, Ore., aircraft manufacturer is reporting record-breaking sales despite the aviation industry’s overall slowdown. The company offers five carbon-composite aircraft: two certified models, including the “Elite” VLJ, and three experimental models that include the Victory VLJ.
Epic has found its niche in giving the GA public what it wants and more. Epic CEO Rick Schrameck has definite ideas of how to build airplanes and what it will take to bring GA into the 21st century. “I believe for a GA company to go into the next decade, it needs to see new building practices, new cost models and new designs,” he says. “The market is saying they want to see new stuff.” Though Schrameck acknowledges Rutan’s accomplishments, he says his inspiration comes more from someone like Bill Lear, founder of Learjet, now Bombardier Aerospace. “What he did by taking off-the-shelf technology and repackaging it for a unique market was impressive,” he says. “Where we differ from Rutan is that we use off-the-shelf components to create production aircraft.”
Carbon composites and new manufacturing practices will, as Schrameck said, change the way aircraft are built, marketed and sold. One example is Epic’s method of creating low-parts-count aircraft. “I’m talking about a 120-part airframe as opposed to a 120,000-part airframe,” notes Schrameck. By embracing new building models, companies like Epic can offer unheard of turnaround in manufacturing. “From zero to full tooling in six months,” Schrameck says.
Kirk Hawkins, CEO of Icon Aircraft, maker of the new A5 amphibian LSA, is creating what he calls “aesthetically inspirational” designs. His company embraces composite materials and uses aerospace engineers and industrial and automotive designers to create its classically beautiful 120-knot airplane. Epic isn’t shy about embracing automotive design, and Hawkins is a devoted motor sports enthusiast. One need not look far for Icon’s inspiration: Members of the company’s engineering team came from Scaled Composites.
The Cirrus Vision SJ50 VLJ takes another page from space-influenced design. The Cirrus design philosophy is part of its initiative to “grow and enhance the entire aviation industry.” Cirrus has been an innovator with the early use of composites, standardized instrument panels and airframe parachute systems. With its VLJ, Cirrus acted on its notion to build a composite aircraft around a highly reliable and efficient powerplant rather than fitting an engine to an existing design. Cirrus also thought to design the interior of the aircraft around the idea of a “sphere” instead of a tube. The company applied automotive design flair for a stunning aircraft. The results, thus far, have been impressive.
On the other side of GA is the idea of using carbon composites in the industrial and commercial use of space. An example is launching large, passenger-carrying spacecraft into near orbit to escape both the pull of gravity and atmospheric resistance (drag). This would result in low fuel consumption and unheard of travel times for long trips like Los Angeles to Tokyo or London.
It’s an exciting time in aviation. The promise of space travel, new construction materials, “green” powerplants and safer aircraft is unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Innovations in space are finding their way to GA airplanes, and the future couldn’t be brighter.
|Here Comes The Sun
A Swiss psychiatrist unveils his globetrotting solar airplane
|Can an aircraft be built that will fly around the world on nothing but solar power? Swiss aeronaut, psychiatrist and adventurer Bertrand Piccard thinks so.
Piccard and his partner, Swiss engineer André Borschberg, unveiled their solar-aircraft design at the Beijing Olympics in hopes of raising money for the project. If the odd contraption can complete the 23,000-mile voyage, it will be a technical accomplishment. Keeping an aircraft airborne through a full night of darkness hasn’t yet been done.
The aircraft will need to harvest solar energy efficiently and will do that through 2,690 square feet of monocrystalline-silicon solar cells. The stored energy will power twin Swiss-built DC motors at 40 hp and turn the custom 12-foot propellers at 500 rpm. Energy for night flight will be stored in 880 pounds of extreme-density lithium-ion batteries.
The airplane will be built to exact tolerances and use technologies not even available when Piccard conceived the idea. The airplane has a wingspan of about 200 feet and must weigh less than 3,500 pounds. It will fly at about 30,000 feet during the day and descend to 6,500 feet at night to conserve batteries. It will fly with the rotation of the Earth to maximize sunlight.
Piccard hopes the craft will become a symbol of renewable energy and an ambassador of sorts for solar power. The craft is in development at a former military base in Switzerland. If all goes according to plan, Piccard will launch across the globe in 2010. Visit www.bertrandpiccard.com.