February 4, 2008 The era of private space travel is another step closer to reality with Virgin Galactic revealing designs for the craft set to become the flagship of the world's first spaceline. Based on SpaceShipOne, which claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October 2004 by successfully becoming the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within the span of a 14 day period, SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo are now approaching completion at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, with flight testing set to get underway towards the middle of this year.
Designed as an environmentally benign space launch system, SpaceShipTwo is the world’s largest, all carbon composite aircraft and will be capable of carrying eight astronauts or other payloads into sub-orbital space flight. In order to achieve its environmental goals, Virgin is working with Pratt and Whitney - manufacturers of the PW308A engines which power the WK2 launch aircraft - to develop a bio-fuel solution for the system.
“Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world’s first private human and payload space launch system. 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", said Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites.
The jointly owned Virgin/Scaled aerospace production company (announced in 2005 by Virgin Founder Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan) owns the designs of the new SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two launch systems and licenses technology from Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace company.
Virgin Galactic reports that there are now over 200 individuals signed up to be among the first non-professional astronauts to fly aboard the history making service, plus around 85,000 registrations of interest. This represents a deposit base exceeding $30m and more than $45m of future income to the fledgling spaceline. Eighty of SpaceShipTwo’s first passengers have already been through medical assessment and centrifuge training at the NASTAR facility in Philadelphia. Although there are no fixed deadlines for the first launch, it could be as early as 2009.
In addition to the unveil of the space launch system, a model of the final design for Spaceport America was put on public display for the first time. Situated in Sierra County, New Mexico the $200m spaceport is to be designed by architectural firm Foster and Partners.The world first private spaceport will be designed to relate to the dimensions of the spacecraft and blend with its desert surroundings with a combination of geo-thermal, solar and wind power used to create a very low carbon footprint. Visitors and astronauts enter the low-lying building via a deep channel cut into the landscape with the retaining walls forming an exhibition space that documents the history of the region and its settlers, alongside a history of space exploration. Virgin Galactic is also looking at the opportunities of operating from other locations worldwide including operating from Spaceport Sweden.