Monday, December 07, 2009

Virgin Galactic unveils commercial spaceship

From Associated Press Science Writer Alicia Chang:

LOS ANGELES - A spacecraft designed to rocket wealthy tourists into space as early as 2011 was unveiled Monday in what backers of the venture hope will signal a new era in aviation history.

The long-awaited glimpse of SpaceShipTwo marks the first public appearance of a commercial passenger spacecraft. The project is bankrolled by Virgin Galactic founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan, the brains behind the venture.

"We want this program to be a whole new beginning in a commercial era of space travel," Branson said.

He is hopeful that they can begin the flights sometime in 2011, only after a series of rigorous safety tests. Branson said he, his family and Rutan would be the first people to make the trip to space aboard the craft.

SpaceShipTwo is based on Rutan's design of a stubby white prototype called SpaceShipOne. In 2004, SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately manned craft to reach space.

Since the historic feat, engineers from Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC have been laboring in a Mojave Desert hangar to commercialize the prototype in heavy secrecy. Some 300 clients have paid the $200,000 ticket or placed a deposit, according to the company.

"NASA spent billions upon billions of dollars on space travel and has only managed to send 480 people," Branson said. "We're literally hoping to send thousands of people into space over the next couple of years. We want to make sure that we build a spaceship that is 100 percent safe."

The last time there was this level of hoopla in the high desert was a little more than a year ago when Branson and Rutan trotted out to great fanfare the twin-fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, that will ferry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude.

Despite the hype, hard work lies ahead before space journeys could become as routine as air travel.

Flight testing of White Knight Two has been ongoing for the past year. The first SpaceShipTwo test flights are expected to start next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude by or in 2011.

SpaceShipTwo, built from lightweight composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor, is similar to its prototype cousin with three exceptions. It's twice as large, measuring 60 feet long with a roomy cabin about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet. It also has more windows including overhead portholes. While SpaceShipOne was designed for three people, SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots.

"It's a big and beautiful vehicle," said X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who has seen SpaceShipTwo during various stages of development.

The ability to view Earth's curvature from space has been limited so far to government astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to board Russian rockets to the orbiting international space station.

The debut of the craft could not come sooner for the scores of wannabe astronauts who have forked over part of their disposable income for the chance to float in zero gravity.

"We've all been patiently waiting to see exactly what the vehicle is going to look like," said Peter Cheney, a 63-year-old potential space tourist from Seattle who was among the first to sign up for suborbital space rides marketed by Virgin Galactic.

After SpaceShipOne's history-making flights, many space advocates believed private companies would offer suborbital space joyrides before the end of this decade.

George Washington University space policy scholar John Logsdon called the milestones to date "measured progress."

"They've been appropriately cautious and making sure that every step is done correctly," he said.

Tragedy struck in 2007 when an explosion killed three of Rutan's engineers during a routine test of SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. The accident delayed the engine's development.

Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial spaceflights out of a taxpayer-funded spaceport in New Mexico that is under construction. The 2 1/2 hour trips — up and down flights without circling the Earth — include about five minutes of weightlessness.

SpaceShipTwo will be carried aloft by White Knight Two and released at 50,000 feet. The craft's rocket engine then burns a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel to climb more than 65 miles above the Earth's surface.

After reaching the top of its trajectory, it will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing like a normal airplane. Its descent is controlled by "feathering" its wings to maximize aerodynamic drag.

Virgin Galactic expects to spend more than $400 million for a fleet of five commercial spaceships and launch vehicles.

It's not the only player in the ultra-secretive commercial space race. A handful of entrepreneurs including Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, computer game programmer John Carmack and rocketeer Jeff Greason are building their own suborbital rockets with dreams of flying people out of the atmosphere.

Associated Press video journalist John Mone contributed to this report.

IMAGE: Top: Sir Richard Branson and SpaceShipTwo in the hangar. Next: SpaceShipTwo and VMS Eve in hangar. Credits: Ned RocknRoll, Virgin Galactic.


loutefre said...

This is proof that rich people are NOT Taxed enough. I am glad that billionaires will have place to buy a $200,000 dollar ticket. Each ticket should be Taxed at an additional $200,000 per ride. This is just great rich people can ride around in space while people down below can't get health care because the republican rich peoples party, don't want to give up their play money. I guess you could not see the sick and dying Americans from space.

Anonymous said...

what i dont understand is how a brand new company can spend $400 million and can be in space in 2 years. NASA spends $400 million a year and says it will be 10 years before its ready. not to mention that NASA already has a HUGE infustructer, some serious government waste here.

Anonymous said...

Dollars given to alliviate the need of the needy can alliviate the immediate need and improve the chances of that person of survival in a demanding world. Dollars spent to create more dollars are 'fertile dollars' as opposed to dollars spent in 'consumable goods' to raise the standard of living of those who have less than the rich. We take care of the others in the most human way possible and create more dollars in order to be able to continue to help ourselves and others.

Anonymous said...

Yup! Ain't nothing like the idol rich! They can tell all their friends that they saw the curvature of the earth.

Anonymous said...

Really, man? Stop feeling sorry for yourself. I'm not a Republican, but I am a successful business owner. I can tell you this, I've made enough money AND SAVED ACCORDINGLY that if I have to put up 8%, I'm shutting the doors.

CB said...

loutfre: Those billionaires pay for your welfare check every month.

Anonymous said...

Rides into space are to the rich as spinner rims and grills are to the poor.

Who would you rather control things down on earth?

Graham said...

Well Sir Richards not daft he can see a money maker a mile off.! It's only technicallly space though, 62 miles up is what they used to call the limit in the 1950's. It's right on the edge where you can see the curvature of the planet and above you is just jet black.!! Still a hell of a thrill for anyone who's got a fortune to buy a ticket.

I say leave the REAL space missions to NASA. And the brave men and women that fly them .!!.

Graham said...

By the way 65 miles is 343,200ft. The shuttle starts to hit the top of the atmosphere on re entry at 400,000 ft.

Graham said...

And just another little thing. Richard if you think you can build a space vehicle thats 100% safe,dream on because there's no such thing. Ask NASA, you can make it as safe as you can thats NEVER 100%.

Stephen C. Smith said...

Comparing Virgin Galactic to NASA is intellectually dishonest. Virgin piggybacks on 50 years of NASA aeronautics research which is in the public domain, saving Virgin billions of dollars in its own research costs.

And other than a couple of test flights, Virgin has yet to prove anything. Let's see what happens when the first one crashes or breaks up in flight, which will inevitably happen.

Anonymous said...

I can't afford the ticket myself, but I certainly won't begrudge anyone else from flying on a Virgin spaceship. If that's what they want to do all the best. Cuz they'll need it!

Robert said...

Building a non-orbital vehicle amounts to little more than throwing a stick up in the air. True space commercialization requires orbital vehicles that have the ability to actually stay in space.

Anonymous said...

There is no comparison. Virgin Galactic does not orbit the Earth. Its one thing to pop your head out of the atmosphere and a COMPLETLY differnt task to orbit the Earth.......DOH.

Try that Branson and see how you do...what a conseited jerk.

Anonymous said...

You know, I'm really surprised at the comments here. First, we should celebrate that we live in a country where we are all free to earn enough to afford a $200K ticket on a Virgin Glactic flight. There are few places on the planet where a good idea and hard work can be so rightfully rewarded.

Secondly, everyone knows the limits of the Virgin Glactic program. That being said, every column inch of positive news that can be generated for space in general is good; it doesnt' matter if it is poking one's nose into space at 348,000 feet or putting footprints in Martian soil, it is all good.

My hat's off to Sir Richard for stepping up to the plate and getting the job done. I'm looking forward to the day where economies of scale may get the cost per seat down to $10,000 where maybe, just maybe people like us could afford to see the beauties of low space.

Anonymous said...

>>>There is no comparison. Virgin Galactic does not orbit the Earth. Its one thing to pop your head out of the atmosphere and a COMPLETLY differnt task to orbit the Earth.......DOH.<<<

I've heard this comment from several NASA employees who should know better. Burt Rutan graduated third in his class at Cal Tech. He knows EXACTLY how much energy it takes to get into orbit. He also knows how much money it takes to build expendable rockets for every launch. Rutan and Branson plan to take people into space at a profit, not by bilking them, but by doing it more efficiently than it has ever been done in the past, with fully-reusable vehicles. He is designing the first privately-financed vehicle for human spaceflight in history. Obviously Rutan has plans to use the White Knight for LEO satellite launches, and to scale up the air-launched reusable system to human orbital flight if the market materializes.

Compare that with NASA, which wants $150 billion of your tax dollars to send a small group of government employees back to the moon, where they will collect rocks that could be recovered less expensively by robotic systems. Unfortunately Constellation will not yield any new technology or exports that would help the US balance of payments. The entire cost will be added to the national debt.

The real scandal is the collapse of the US commercial launch industry while NASA doesn't even notice. We have had one commercial launch in the past year, and two in the past three years. NASA once provided the technical development that allowed our civil aerospace industry to lead the world. Today even the Europeans are beating the pants off us, and they only work 35 hours a week. There are many brilliant people at KSC and other NASA centers. They could do important, practical things for our country.

Can you tell me one practical benefit that Constellation will provide for America that will be worth the $150 billion it will cost?

andreafox21 said...

That just looks so wonderful. I heard a single flight would cost $1 million. I hope I can ride one soon.

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