SpaceShipTwo/White Knight Two Unveiled
Virgin Galactic will have exhibit at AirVenture
The unveiling drew a lot of attention from the media Wednesday. Photo by Adam Smith
The partnership between Branson and Rutan was announced on stage at Theater in the Woods at AirVenture Oshkosh 2005. Photo by Adam Smith
Two thumbs up - way up! Photo by Adam Smith
SpaceShipTwo retains the unique "feathering" design of its record-setting predecessor. Photo by Adam Smith
The model of SpaceShipTwo's mothership, White Knight Two. Photo by Adam Smith
EAA is listed as a partner of the commercial space project. Photo by Adam Smith
A rendering from Virgin Galactic showing the aircraft in flight.
January 24, 2008 — The highly anticipated designs of SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two (WK2) were unveiled Wednesday morning in New York City during a standing-room-only press conference hosted by Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites. The two vehicles are based on the technology of Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X prize in 2004 by flying into suborbital space twice in the space of six days. Virgin Galactic is scheduled to have an exhibit at this summer's EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. EAA is also one of several official partners in the SpaceShipTwo project.
"Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world's first private human and payload space launch system," Rutan said. "This required us to produce a safe but flexible design capable of multiple applications in new market sectors. I am confident that these vehicles, now in an advanced stage of construction, will achieve just that.
"'Looking up - way up!' is an expression we have shared since the X Prize began, and now we are all excited that this year the dream will start to become a very tangible reality for everyone involved."
Wednesday's press conference featured a lengthy technical briefing from Burt Rutan and various members of the Scaled Composites design and construction team. While some "secrets" were deliberately withheld, considerable insight was gained into the technical background and designs of the two new vehicles.
White Knight Two
The most immediate difference between White Knight Two and its predecessor is that of sheer size. With a 140 foot wingspan, roughly equivalent to that of a B-29 bomber, this will be the largest all-composite aircraft ever built. In addition, Rutan believes that WK2's single main wingspar is the largest single composite piece ever made for an aircraft, dwarfing the largest components on both the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787.
The flight simulator for WK2 has been built and is fully operational. Pilots that have flown the simulator are reporting spectacular power and performance from the airplane's four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines.
White Knight Two features a twin-boom, twin-cabin layout the design of which was a natural development from the requirement to carry a large under slung payload. The left hand cabin will mimic that of SpaceShipTwo, with a forward flight deck and passenger cabin behind. The right hand cabin contains no flight deck, and can be configured for a variety of purposes. Potential uses include a training cabin to expose future spaceship passengers to the G-loads of their upcoming space flight; a passenger cabin so friends and family can watch the rocket launches of their loved ones; and as a scientific laboratory for high altitude or microgravity experiments.
The mothership is capable of carrying other high-altitude payloads beyond SpaceShipTwo. Potential uses include the ability to use WK2 to launch small satellites into orbit, something that could dramatically reduce the cost of such endeavors, compared to existing methods using rockets or the Space Shuttle. Rutan has calculated that it is theoretically possible to use WK2 to place a single human passenger into orbit.
Construction of WK2 is well underway, and is estimated at 70-80% complete. Rollout and first flight is expected to take place in the summer of 2008. Along with the models unveiled this week, EAA eagerly anticipates what else Virgin Galactic has in store for its presence at AirVenture Oshkosh 2008!
SpaceShipTwo has been designed to reach a peak altitude of 110 kilometers, slightly higher than the maximum altitude reached by SpaceShipOne. This will give passengers approximately 4½ minutes of weightlessness. For reentry, the breakthrough "feathering" technology featured on SpaceShipOne will be used.
Although the feathering feature has been retained, the spaceship's design has changed in several ways. Built to carry six passengers and two pilots in style and comfort, SpaceShipTwo is much bigger than its predecessor. The main passenger cabin has been designed large enough to allow the six passengers to unbuckle and experience the truest sensations of weightlessness. The view will be enhanced by 18-inch windows in the main passenger cabin, which are much larger than the small portholes of SpaceShipOne.
A low wing configuration is expected to provide more stability at supersonic speeds than the high wing of SpaceShipOne which contributed to a departure from controlled flight on Mike Melvill's second space flight in 2004. With safety and reliability in mind, all the spaceship's major systems have been designed with particular attention to redundancy - there are now dual systems in place for the likes of undercarriage and feathering mechanism. The higher altitude and weight of SpaceShipTwo means that - despite the feathering mechanism - it may need a little more thermal protection.
Construction of SpaceShipTwo is estimated at 60% complete. Progress has been slowed somewhat by continuing investigations into the fatal accident that took place during work on the rocket engine in summer of 2007. First test flights of SpaceShipTwo are hoped for at some point in 2009, but the whole team is keen to stress that pressure to make the first flights will not override the primary desire to be safe. "We're in a race with nobody," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.
Rutan shared information about aircraft production volumes and the numbers of passengers expected to make a trip into space. Virgin Galactic has ordered five spaceships with options for seven more, and Rutan anticipates an ultimate production run of up to fifty spaceships and fifteen launch airplanes. The system has been designed to accommodate multiple launches per day. Within the first twelve years of operations, the system has capacity to take 100,000 passengers, with the peak rate being achieved five to seven years after the first commercial flights.
Virgin Galactic has received deposits from 200 astronauts totaling over $30 million. Ticket price is currently $200,000, although as passenger volumes increase, the goal is to dramatically reduce this price to make spaceflight affordable to the maximum number of people.
Virgin Galactic is challenging the widely held belief that astronauts need to be "superhuman" in terms of health and fitness. Eighty ordinary people have undergone medical tests and centrifuge training, to ensure they are capable of making the flight into space (which involves loadings of 3.5G on the way up and 6G on the way down). 93 percent of those applicants passed the tests, with the oldest being 88 years of age. Richard Branson's father intends to fly in space at age 92!
The team is devoting significant efforts to making this a safe program. As an airline operator, the Virgin group has a deep commitment to safety, and believes that for Virgin Galactic to be successful, it will need to achieve a level of safety "hundreds of times better" than the record that established by government space flights. (Rutan points out that of the 450 or so people who have flown in space since the 1950s, 4 percent have been killed in accidents.)
A Unique project
This has been a unique project for Scaled Composites, which is more used to making one-off, rapid prototypes for R&D purposes rather than producing a complete production program for passenger carrying vehicles used for high intensity operations.
Rutan also confessed it was an unusual experience to be unveiling models of his designs rather than the real thing. He likes to fly and prove his aircraft first, then reveal them to the world. However, the intense levels of interest in the Virgin Galactic program led the team to agree it was best to unveil the designs in advance. They hope to get some peace and quiet in Mojave, California, to complete construction.
Sir Richard Branson revealed that the new space vehicles would operate on a specially developed bio-fuel. "We are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft," he said.