Does Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Flier Really Take You To Space?
May 15, 2014

Does Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Flier Really Take You To Space?

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

As Virgin Galactic sent its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane out for a test drive on Tuesday, the company found itself the subject of reports claiming that its commercial space flight operation would be delayed, as well as speculation that its passengers might not technically be traveling into space after all.

According to a Monday article from David Gilbert of the International Business Times, those media reports claim that the company would fail to meet Virgin Galactic owner Sir Richard Branson's January prediction that flights would begin by this summer. Instead, those flights would have to be pushed back until at least 2015 due to a defect found in the spacecraft’s wings.

Branson, who first announced that he was investing in Virgin Galactic in 2004, initially predicted that commercial space flight would be a reality by 2007. Obviously, those predictions have not come to fruition, and now Gilbert said that it is “highly unlikely” that the vehicle will be ready for travel before the end of the summer.

However, President and CEO George T. Whitesides offered a different viewpoint, telling the IB Times that the company should reach space in “just a few short months from now” and that the company’s current timetable “has Richard's flight taking place around the end of the year.”

As for the other issue, Gizmodo’s Jamie Condliffe reports that members of the media had analyzed the small print in Virgin Galactic’s customer contract, and found that it promises to transport passengers to heights of “at least 50 miles.” According to Condliffe, that is “some 12 miles short of the widely accepted boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space – known as the Karman Line – which lies at an altitude of 62 miles.”

Virgin counters that it is using the 50 mile definition established by NASA first in the 1960s and most recently in 2005 to allow pilots of the rocket-powered X-15 aircraft as astronauts, the Gizmodo reporter said. However, the World Air Sports Federation, which serves as the governing body for astronautical world records, will only officially recognize an individual as an astronaut if they journey beyond the Karman Line, he added.

“NASA and the US Air Force have a long tradition of celebrating everything above 50 miles (~80km) as spaceflight, and we look forward to joining those ranks soon as we push onward and upward,” Whitesides said in a statement. “We are still targeting 100km [62 miles]. As we have always noted, we will have to prove our numerical predictions via test flights as we continue through the latter phase of the test program.”

“Like cars, planes, and every other type of vehicle designed by humans, we expect our vehicle design and performance to evolve and improve over time,” he added. “When SpaceShipTwo reaches space for the first time… it will become one a very small number of vehicles to have ever done so, enabling us to commence services as the world's first commercial spaceline.”

Perhaps in response to the reports, Virgin Galactic brought out WhiteKnightTwo, which will serve as the mothership for the SpaceShipTwo vehicle that will be used to transport passengers into space, for an inspection and test drive at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Tuesday, according to NBC News Digital science editor Alan Boyle.

The company announced via Twitter that they were taxi-testing the carrier plane’s new landing gear, Boyle said. He added that the company is expecting to send both the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo through “a series of increasingly ambitious test flights” over the next few months.

Branson, who plans to become one of the first passengers, said that he is hopeful that the first flights will begin soon. “We're not going to go until we're 100 percent sure it's obviously safe, but I would be very, very disappointed if it doesn't happen this year,” he told reporters on Monday, according to Boyle. However, he did confess that “building a spaceship and a mothership is taking us longer than we thought.”