New Launch System for Space Tourism Bid

Burt Rutan, Sir Richard Branson unveil SpaceShipTwo

On Jan. 23, at a ceremony held in New York City, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.) and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites (Mojave, Calif.) unveiled the design of a new space launch system intended to make space travel available to the public and make Branson’s Virgin Galactic firm the world’s first commercial “spaceline.” The system includes SpaceShipTwo, which is based on technology used in Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. The latter, in October 2004, captured the $10 million (USD) Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately developed manned spacecraft to complete back-to-back suborbital flights.

Now nearly 60 percent complete, the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo, according to Branson and Rutan, has benefited from lessons learned on SpaceShipOne and has been expanded to accommodate eight future space tourists. It also has built-in flexibility to encompass future scientific and commercial applications. Construction of the White Knight Two (WK2) mothership, or carrier aircraft, is close to completion at Scaled and is expected to begin flight-testing this summer. Powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, WK2 reportedly will be the world’s largest all-carbon composite aircraft, designed with the high-altitude lift capacity necessary to provide a platform from which SpaceShipTwo can be launched into suborbital flight.

While the first priority for Virgin Galactic, sister firm to Virgin Atlantic Airways, Branson’s U.K.-based airline, is developing the market for human spaceflight, the company already is assessing the potential for launching small satellites and other scientific payloads into low-earth orbit, said Branson.

“Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world’s first private human and payload space launch system,” said Rutan at the unveiling. “This required us to produce a safe but flexible design capable of multiple applications in new market sectors. I am confident that these vehicles … will achieve just that.”

Also on display was a model of the proposed Spaceport America, which will be the world’s first private spaceport. Situated in Sierra County, N.M., its custom-designed structure will be powered by geothermal, solar and wind technologies. Virgin Galactic is considering other potential port locations worldwide and is conducting feasibility studies for a Spaceport Sweden.

Virgin Galactic’s cadre of future astronauts has grown to more than 200, with about 85,000 registrations of interest to fly and deposits exceeding $30 million (USD). Virgin Galactic has begun orientation for future passengers — 80 people have gone through medical assessment and centrifuge training at the Philadelphia-based National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR), a subsidiary of Environmental Tectonics Corp. (Southhampton, Pa.).