Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic unveiled the designs of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo on Wednesday, bringing wealthy mankind one step closer to getting into space.
The spaceships are based on the X Prize-winning technology of SpaceShipOne, which successfully flew into space for the third time in October 2004 and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The construction of the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, or carrier aircraft, is very close to completion and the craft is expected to begin flight testing this summer.
"The designs of both the mothership and the new spaceship are absolutely beautiful and surpass any expectations for the future of commercial spaceflight that we had when first registering the name Virgin Galactic in 1999," Branson said.
A Private Spaceship
WhiteKnightTwo is the world's largest, all-carbon-composite aircraft. It has a high-altitude lift capacity capable of launching SpaceShipTwo and its eight astronauts into suborbital spaceflight. The White Knight Two mothership is powered by four Pratt & Whitney PW308A engines, which are among the most powerful and efficient engines available.
The mothership has been designed to lift other payloads and launch them into space. While the two vehicles comprising the space launch system have been under construction, Virgin Galactic's cadre of future astronauts has grown to well in excess of 200 individuals, with around 85,000 registrations of interest to fly.
"Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world's first private human and payload space launch system," said Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites, an aerospace composites development company Branson has partnered with on the project. "This required us to produce a safe but flexible design capable of multiple applications in new market sectors. I am confident that these vehicles, now in an advanced stage of construction, will achieve just that."
Getting Ready for Liftoff
Astronaut orientation for spaceflight is progressing well, according to Virgin, and 80 of SpaceShipTwo's first passengers already have been through medical assessment and centrifuge training in Philadelphia. The first flight is scheduled for 2009. Scaled Composites met with tragedy last summer when an explosion killed three employees during a test of the nitrous system.
For Aaron Altman, a University of Dayton associate mechanical and aerospace engineering professor who specializes in aircraft design, there's only one big question: What's happened with Scaled Components' rocket development since the explosion? Beyond that, he said, things look good on paper.
"I've got confidence in Branson and Virgin that they've done their market research and they have a market for this," Altman said. "Getting the ship to the altitude at that weight is feasible. The real question is whether they are going to be able to scale up SpaceShipOne and if it will fit within Virgin's business model."