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Virgin Galactic Spaceline: Mega-Mothership Set for Rollout Debut

June 8, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rollout of Scaled
Composites’ mega-mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, is anticipated late July in
Mojave, California — the first phase of a project to create a private space
travel business — SPACE.com has learned in an exclusive interview.

WhiteKnightTwo
is a specially designed jet carrier aircraft, built to haul the passenger and
crew-filled SpaceShipTwo to release altitude of roughly 50,000 feet.

Once on its own, SpaceShipTwo guns
itself on a suborbital trek to over 68 miles (109 kilometers) high, reaching a
speed of just over three times the speed of sound, and then returns its six
rubber-necking tourists and two pilots back to Earth.

And even in space, yes, you can hear
cash registers ringing up sales.

That’s the word from Will Whitehorn,
President of Virgin Galactic, the company owned and established by British
businessman and billionaire, Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, to fashion
the world’s first commercial spaceline.

“I think we are above the plan
we originally had in terms of the number of tickets we sold before we started
flying,” Whitehorn told SPACE.com in an exclusive May 29 interview here
during the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference.

Priority seating

Some 254 people have plopped down
cash to earn priority seating onboard SpaceShipTwo in the first couple of years
of suborbital flying, Whitehorn explained. “They’ve paid up-front between
$20,000 and $200,000 … and we’ve got about $36 million, as of today, in the
bank.”

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic’s
ambition since day one has been to sell the first year’s operations before firing
the starting gun on ticketed runs to space. While that date is still to be
determined, he said that the firm would want to sell about 500 or 600 tickets
before then.

“We see ourselves carrying that
many people in the first year,” Whitehorn said. “Virgin isn’t going
to fund a business that isn’t a real business.”

But the true foundation for closing Virgin
Galactic’s public space travel business case is test, test and then test some
more.

Extensive flight testing

“We’ve designed a test program
at the moment which is incredibly conservative,” Whitehorn advised — a
program that he thinks might be shortened. “We’re into sort of a 130 to
150 flight category program, which is extensive.”

That test program starts with
rollout of the huge WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, now targeted for the end of
July. The aircraft will be ground tested for days or weeks at the Mojave Air
and Space Port, depending on the opinion of Scaled Composites experts,
Whitehorn emphasized, but the hope is to have the plane airborne by September.

Scaled Composites
founder, Burt
Rutan
, has led his company team in shaping the suborbital space travel
hardware, and was recently named Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus
of the company.

SpaceShipTwo will still be under shrouds
next month, Whitehorn added, before it is publicly unveiled in the early part
of next year.

“The business plan would
obviously love us to start flying as soon as possible. The safety plan may well
agree with that at the end of the day … but it may not,” Whitehorn
suggested.

Open space

The beast that is WhiteKnightTwo has
its work cut out for it … and then some.

Virgin Galactic officials — including
its cadre of sales agents — have proven that there is a suborbital market that
could justify building the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system. That fact was
not known at start of construction, Whitehorn admitted.

Still, there’s more business oomph
in WhiteKnightTwo than handling passenger traffic on suborbital jaunts.

“WhiteKnightTwo is the world’s
most advanced payload carrier. It has the best fuel efficiency of any aircraft
ever built in history. It is the world’s first 100 percent carbon composite
aircraft … 100 percent minus the blades and undercarriage,” Whitehorn
pointed out. “Even the control wires are carbon composite … a first in
aviation … and a patented technology.”

A look at WhiteKnightTwo artwork
shows the “open architecture” of the twin booms on the craft. Within
that open space, a multi-purpose range of payloads can be cradled under the
aircraft.

“WhiteKnightTwo has got
incredible abilities,” Whitehorn emphasized. For one, serving as a
high-altitude launch platform, the aircraft can toss microsatellites into low
Earth orbit.

Another idea that is bubbling up for
study is whether the aircraft can act as a forest fire water bomber. A massive
carbon composite water tank can be hauled by WhiteKnightTwo, one that can be
quickly replenished to make repeat runs over rampaging fires.

“It is also a zero-g aircraft
so we can train
our passengers
in it. It can also do microgravity science flights,
high-altitude testing, and it can launch payloads … other than SpaceShipTwo,”
Whitehorn said. “My background in aviation told me, right from the early
days, that if we just give WhiteKnightTwo a single purpose, then it’s less likely
to be profitable in the future.”

Margin of error

If all goes according to plan,
WhiteKnightTwo should be in the air by early September. “We’ve got to take
it to the limit of its operating ceiling and test it up there before we
under-sling anything under it,” Whitehorn noted.

One of the biggest issues with any
aviation or space project – when you are developing something at the
cutting edge of technology — is typically weight, Whitehorn said. And at this
moment, there is the capacity to cope with growth of weight in what Virgin
Galactic and Scaled Composites is doing … because of WhiteKnightTwo.

“That is the thing that gives
me the most comfort that we’re going to achieve ‘commercialality’ with it.
Because, if we had no room for margin of error on weight now, we’d be in, I
think, a difficult place,” Whitehorn pointed out. “But we’ve got lots
of room for margin of error.”

For more information on Virgin
Galactic, go to http://www.virgingalactic.com/


Source: imaginova



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