July 27, 2008

New Ship Blasts Off In The Race For Space

Wealthy tourists may soon have the chance to be propelled 62 miles above Earth, thanks to the work of aerospace engineers who have been holed up in a Mojave Desert hangar for four years.

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and American aerospace designer Burt Rutan are expected to show off their top-secret mothership on Monday.

The rollout comes only a year after a deadly explosion at Rutan's Scaled Composites' test site killed three technicians.

The commercial spaceship marks the start of a rigorous flight test program that space tourism advocates hope will climax with the first suborbital joy rides by the end of the decade.

"Having invested all my faith in it, I'm so excited to see the actual thing," said artist Namira Salim, a customer who is lined up for a ride on Branson's Virgin Galactic.

For a mere five minutes in outer space, more than 250 wannabe astronauts have paid $200,000 or put down deposits for a chance to float weightless.

In Los Angeles during 2004, commercial spacecraft also generated buzz in the high desert, when throngs of spectators gathered to witness SpaceShipOne capture the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

SpaceShipOne became the first private, manned craft to reach space. It was designed by Rutan and bankrolled by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen.

SpaceShipOne ushered in a new space age dominated by rich entrepreneurs with dreams of hopping on a spacecraft similar to a commercial airline. So far, that vision remains unfulfilled.

Branson teamed with Rutan's publicity-shy Scaled Composites LLC to commercialize SpaceShipOne.  Its successor, SpaceShipTwo, is being designed out of the public eye, along with the carrier aircraft White Knight Two.

Branson previously heralded 2008 as the "Year of the Spaceship."

"They've been hyping this and selling tickets," said Alan Radecki, a helicopter mechanic and aviation photographer who follows the private space race. "This is the first time they're going to have hardware to show people."

In January, Branson and Rutan offered a sneak peek of their commercial partnership. They revealed to the public, scale models of the mothership and the spacecraft it will launch.

The project remains thoroughly secretive, so far technical details remain guarded. However, small bits of information about the vehicles have trickled out: The twin-fuselage White Knight Two will have the same wingspan - 140 feet - as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the World War II bomber.

Plans call for White Knight Two to carry SpaceShipTwo 50,000 feet in the air, tucked beneath its single 140-foot wing, before releasing it. 

SpaceShipTwo will be able to carry six passengers and two pilots and be similar in size to a corporate Gulfstream. Both will be built with ultra-light composite materials.

SpaceShipTwo will then power its hybrid rocket and climb into space. Before gliding back to Earth, it will use a Rutan-designed "feathering" technique - in which the wings are rotated upward from the fuselage to reduce the heat of re-entry.

Politicians, government regulators and space tourism customers are expected to attend Monday's rollout, where only White Knight Two will be on display.

Flight-testing is slated for the end of September after ground tests in August.

Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said SpaceShipTwo is only about 70 percent complete.

Experts of the infant private spaceflight industry say they are impressed by the progress. But they say the main attraction - the actual spaceship that will carry passengers "“ has not been available to the public.

"It's a positive step forward," said space analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University. "The real indication of progress will be showing a spaceship that's on the path that's ready to fly."

It's not yet known, when tourists will experience zero gravity or see Earth's curvature. The project already lags Virgin Galactic's 2004 prediction that passengers would be in space by 2007.

Whitehorn did not set a specific date for commercial travel, but he estimate the earliest flights to space could be late 2009 or early 2010.

The first space voyage has been reserved for Branson and his family.  Virgin Galactic plans to rename the aircraft "Eve" after Branson's mother, a former glider pilot instructor and flight attendant.

The 2 1/2-hour trip is expected to include about five minutes of zero gravity, meaning the feeling of weightlessness. Unlike the space shuttle that orbits Earth, early space tourism plans involve flights that simply go up and come back down.

Whitehorn said, Virgin Galactic has pledged more than $250 million toward the project; about $100 million has been spent so far.

Besides space tourism, Virgin Galactic already has lofty plans for White Knight Two; company executives envision the aircraft can be used as a launcher of small satellites into low Earth orbit. The craft can also be adapted to fight wildfires or be used as an emergency rescue vehicle with the proper permits.