Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Virgin Galactic

Well, I was hoping to bring you all some sort of interesting space tourism news this week, but it seems to be a slow week for that sort of thing, so I'll start profiling some of the space tourism companies (as promised) instead.

I'll start with Virgin Galactic. They're the second on my original list, but they're my personal favorite, so I'm beginning with them.

It all started with a company named Scaled Composites, led by a man named Burt Rutan. Scaled Composites was founded in 1982, and focused primarily on designing and building unique aircraft from non-metal composite materials, and on designing the fabrication processes needed to do so.

Then came the arrival of the Ansari X-Prize. In May of 1996, a competition was announced to give $10,000,000 to the first private company to launch a single craft carrying three people into space twice within a week, without replacing more than 10% of the vehicle's mass in between. Burt Rutan and the fine people at Scaled thought they just might have the resources and expertise necessary to pull it off.

Well, they did. A group of about 120 people developed a successful space program in eight years' time, on a budget of twenty million dollars, with the first manned spacecraft capable of re-entering Earth's atmosphere without a heat shield! Those aren't the only feats they pulled off; SpaceShipOne was only the second mechanically-controlled aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier, it became the fastest mechanically-controlled aircraft ever at speeds exceeding Mach 3, and it did so while flying straight up! Also, it broke the record altitude for a rocket plane by a few thousand feet, beating out the U.S. military's X-15. Scaled Composites' budget required them to get very creative during the development and testing of SpaceShipOne. For example, they didn't have money for wind tunnel tests, so they put pieces of the craft on the back of a pickup and drove really fast down a runway instead! And during the whole process of building and testing SpaceShipOne, they came close to disaster no less than three times! Again, if you haven't seen it, I recommend the Discovery Channel documentary on this process (on the right); it's highly entertaining. And here's a cool picture.

And another.

Anyway, I'm rambling. SpaceShipOne successfully won the Ansari X-Prize on October 4, 2004. Shortly thereafter, Virgin Galactic was founded by Sir Richard Branson, a (somewhat amusingly named) member of his Virgin group of companies. He then announced plans to team up with Burt Rutan to found The Spaceship Company, the company that is responsible for the design and construction of SpaceShipTwo, and its "mothership", WhiteKnightTwo. Virgin Galactic then contracted The Spaceship Company to deliver five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwos for their initial operations. Just a couple of weeks ago, designs and pictures of the first SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo (named Enterprise and Eve, respectively) were released to the general public. Here are a couple of those pictures!

So there you have it! Flight tests are expected to begin this summer, with actual tourist flights beginning in 2009. For a the mere $200,000 price tag, you too can touch the sky! Or... something sappy like that.

Wait, you don't think it ends there, do you? Not at all! Burt Rutan has a three-tiered solution to the space tourism problem. SpaceShipOne and Two are part of his Tier One vision, consisting of sub-orbital tourism. There are still two tiers left! Tier Two will be orbital tourism. There are already rough plans in the works for the Tier Two craft, which will likely be loosely based on SpaceShipTwo. Tier Three? Well, that's where you get to leave the Earth's orbit altogether and visit the Moon, or perhaps L2, the gravitational "balance point" on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun (more on Lagrange points here). There are exciting times ahead, so stay tuned!

Images credit Scaled Composites, LLC (first two), Virgin Galactic (third), and Reuters (fourth)

Progress: 3.24% Flight Time: 0:04:51

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