No.25 | Space | Virgin Galactic | Space Tourism Flights

Space | Virgin Galactic | Space Tourism Flights

SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Enterprise during a glide flight in Mojave, CA, USA. Photo by Mark Greenberg


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Virgin HolidaysVirgin Galactic: Space Tourism Flights by 2012

By: Daniel Knodel

The same company the runs Virgin Music, Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Atlantic Airways, now seeks to start a whole new kind of business. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group plans to start the world’s first space tourism airline, Virgin Galactic. The business tycoon has already invested in a fleet consisting of two types of spaceships and accessory aircraft to provide suborbital spaceflights. Customers from the general public will be able to purchase trips to experience weightlessness and view Earth from space. Virgin Galactic will also market suborbital space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites. As an airline that travels to space, it even plans to facilitate its flights for international spaceports.

An international architectural competition was held for the design of Virgin Galactic’s operating base, Spaceport America in New Mexico. URS and Foster + Partners architects won the contract. Upon the completion of the spaceport, current flight testing operations will transfer from the California desert to Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic intends to run the first flights out of New Mexico before extending operations around the globe, including plans for spaceports in Sweden, Dubai, and the United Kingdom.

Virgin Galactic spaceflights will be flown by two types of spaceships. Spaceship One became the world’s first private spaceship with a series of high-altitude flights in 2004. As they ascend, Virgin Galactic Spaceships will reach speeds faster than military fighter jets can fly. However, the spacecraft will not be able to sustain that speed for long periods of time. At the peak of accent passengers will experience six minutes of weightlessness during what will be a two-hour flight in its entirety. Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during these six minutes and float inside the cabin. The spacecraft fold up their wings while re-entering the atmosphere, and then returns them to their original position for an unpowered descent flight back onto the runway. The Spaceships will need to land at spaceports of departure until more spaceports are built worldwide.

Spaceship Two will fly higher than Spaceship One, to a height of 110 km in order to go beyond the defined boundary of space (100 km) and lengthen the experience of weightlessness. Spaceship Two is twice as large as Spaceship One, measuring 18m (60ft) in length. Spaceship Two will accommodate double the crew and can carry triple the passenger, with a crew of two and room for six passengers. In honor of the science fiction series “Star Trek”, the first two ships are named after the fictional starships “Enterprise” and “Voyager”. Spaceship Two is based on the X-Prize winning Spaceship One concept. Similar to the X-51 Waverider, both Spaceships relay on an accessory aircraft, named the White Knight, a carrier vehicle that lifts the spaceships to 50,000ft before releasing them to fly on their own. The spaceships flew even higher than NASA’s X-43. After release, the spacecraft climb straight up at a speed around Mach 3 (1000 m/s).

About 300 individuals are reported to have signed up for Virgin Galactic spaceflights so far. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson christened the spaceliner Virgin Spaceship Enterprise. The New Mexico authorities are investing almost $200 million in a purpose-built facility in Upham. It will have a 3,000m (10,000ft) runway and a suitably space-age terminal and hangar building. Although Virgin Galactic will face competitors, it is almost certain to be the first to market, unless it encounters unforeseen problems during its test campaign.

The Spaceship Company (TSC) is a new aerospace production company founded by Virgin Group and Scaled Composites, which is building a fleet of commercial spaceships and launch aircraft with the intention of making widespread space travel a reality. TSC’s initial launch customer is Virgin Galactic, contracted to purchase five Spaceship Twos and two White Knight Twos. To meet Virgin Galactic’s requirements, TSC has contracted Scaled Composites to develop and build prototypes of the White Knight Two and Spaceship Two, which TSC started full-scale production of in 2008.

Initially Virgin Galactic spaceflights will cost about $200,000 per person, with a $20,000 deposit. However, numerous other companies currently pursue development of commercial passenger suborbital spaceflight. Additionally, several other companies also seek to develop commercial fully orbital spaceflight capability, which is a significantly more difficult challenge than the suborbital spaceflight Virgin Galactic would offer. Competition between companies emerging in the space tourism market may eventually lead to more affordable commercial spaceflights.

What once seemed like a story meant merely for science fiction may soon become a reality. In February 2007, Virgin and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the potential for collaboration. By December 7, 2009, Virgin unveiled Space Ship Two at the Mojave, California Spaceport. Virgin declined to make an official announcement of when commercial flights would first take place, but said Virgin Galactic tickets will be available on a “safety-driven schedule”. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said that the company would “not put a definite timeline on when the commercial flights would begin” but that “all was on track with its development plans” and that “If all goes to plan”, the inaugural suborbital flight should happen “within two years [of June 2009]”

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