At $200,000 a ticket it isn’t cheap but it is definitely out of this world and you get a great view. Virgin Galactic’s plans to be the first space tourism business really took off after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize back in 2004. Now, 529 “astronauts” (around 85 flights worth) have booked their tickets to go up in SpaceShipTwo (SS2), a six-seat (plus two pilots) all-composite ship of novel design–as can be seen here in the Farnborough airshow static park.
Although this is a replica, the pivoting wings that are the key design feature for achieving re-entry without titanium or ablative shielding is evident. The actual vehicle has been built by The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, California. Launches will take place from the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic has established “Spaceport America.”
Steve Isakowitz, VG’s chief technology officer and executive v-p, spoke to AIN just before the airshow. He explained how the system works: “The White Knight Two carrier ship takes off carrying SS2 and at 50,000 feet releases the spaceship, and then it fires its hybrid propulsion system,” Isakowitz explained. “This burns for around one minute for the ‘pull-up’ maneuver and the folks on board experience 3 to 4Gs [as SS2 accelerates to Mach 3.5].”
This takes SS2 to an altitude of 360,000 feet, “when the propulsion cuts off you’re in microgravity–and the plan is to enable everyone to take their seatbelts off to experience it. Large windows mean they can look back on the Earth. Then SS2 goes through its maximum altitude and, after a while, [the astronauts] get the signal to return to their seats.
“The pilots then execute the feather maneuver, which creates an incredibly stable configuration to slow [SS2] gradually while minimizing heat loads. Then they de-feather [the wings] and come in like a regular glider.” This is what the single-seat SpaceShipOne proved could be done so spectacularly when it won the X-prize.
At the moment, the team has completed early glide tests of SS2 and Isakowitz said, “The next exciting milestone is when we put the rocket in the spaceship–and we are on pace to do that by the end of 2012. We will do incremental testing–starting with firing the motor for a few seconds to see how the aircraft handles and how well the pilots handle it. Then we’ll do longer and longer burns.”
Isakowitz seems confident that certification will be possible. “Because we’re unique, the FAA has two offices involved, for aviation and for space, although their space office is taking the lead. Right now we have an experimental certificate], but the next major one is the operating license. We’ll start the process [to obtain that] next year.”
Once operational, VG believes it could fly up to 500 people in the first year and 30,000 over the first 10 years. “Our ultimate aspiration is to fly every day,” said Isakowitz. The company’s hope is that as flights become more frequent, the cost of tickets will be reduced.
For pilots, he told AIN that the company expects to employ six to eight astronaut pilots in the early stages of commercial operations and that there will be another pilot selection in summer 2012, “pending the progress of flight testing.” The current pilots are Dave Mackay, chief pilot, and Keith Colmer.
The logical next step for Virgin Galactic would be orbital flights and, to this end, it stated: “We have signed a letter of support for NASA CCDec competitor Dreamchaser, but we are fully focused on our core product.” Dreamchaser is a project of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (who also funded SpaceShipOne) that has already acquired two former United Airlines Boeing 747s and plans to convert them into a single carrier aircraft for a rocket ship.
Meanwhile, VG has teamed with Aabar Investments to establish a second spaceport in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, although for now it is focused on making a success of Spaceport America, on which it has a 20-year lease. The state of New Mexico reportedly raised more than $200 million to date to support Spaceport America, through a special tax. This has helped to extend the runway to 12,000 feet (2,000 feet longer) to enhance safety. Other companies are also locating to the Spaceport–so far, they have included Armadillo Aerospace and Lockheed Martin.