British entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, has teamed up with aerospace designer, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites to form a new aerospace production company. The new firm will build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.

Called The Spaceship Company, the new entity will manufacture launch aircraft, various spacecraft and support equipment and market those products to spaceliner operators. Clients include launch customer, Virgin Galactic--formed by Branson to handle space tourist flights.

The Spaceship Company is jointly owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Scaled will be contracted for research and development testing and certification of a 9-person SpaceShipTwo (SS2) design, and a White Knight Two (WK2) mothership to be called Eve. Rutan will head up the technical development team for the SS2/WK2 combination.

Drawing from SpaceShipOne technology


The announcement was made today at the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture gathering being held July 25-31 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The yearly event spotlights homebuilt aircraft, antiques, classics, warbirds, ultralights, rotorcraft--as well as the emerging commercial spaceflight business.


Both rocket ship and the carrier aircraft will draw from Rutan's work on SpaceShipOne and the White Knight mothership. The SS2/WK2 system will adopt the reentry concept and hybrid rocket motor design work hammered out for SpaceShipOne, licensing that technology from Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Company.

SpaceShipOne successfully snagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize last year by staging back-to-back flights of the piloted craft to the edge of space.

Both of the new vehicles, however, are to be twice the size of the earlier designs.

Future operations

"We're taking the technology of SpaceShipOne and developing it into a usable commercial vehicle to give thousands of people the chance to experience the majesty of space," said Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic--the space tourism venture that is a subsidiary of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

Branson told the Oshkosh crowd that the commercial spaceship can carry 7 paying passengers, along with a two-person flight crew. "We hope that we can get those spacecraft built roughly two and a half to three years from now," he said.

Once the fleet of suborbital craft is built, a base from which to operate the spaceships is to be set up within the United States. "We still haven't decided on which state the base will be," Branson said, adding that the space tourist-carrying vehicles could rocket spaceward from the Mojave, California desert, Las Vegas, New Mexico, or possibly Florida.

"That's all to be decided," Branson said.

Seat price expected to drop

At present, seats onboard Virgin Galactic spaceships are price tagged at $200,000 each.

But Branson hopes that this seat price will drop over time. "Our aim is to bring the price down," he said.

"Our principal aim behind this is not to make money. The principal aim is to reinvest any money we make into space exploration," Branson said. "We expect to double, triple, quadruple the number of astronauts in the next few years that have currently experienced space," he said.

To date, Branson said, about a 100 pioneers have been willing to pay $200,000 to be the first people to go into space via Virgin Galactic. "These are the kinds of people who are going to enable us to bring the cost of space travel down," he stated.

Charting the investment curve

Whitehorn said that Virgin Galactic has been negotiating with Rutan over the last several months to chart out how best to move forward and create a passenger-carrying rocket ship.

"We have decided that since this is such a new industry -- and so early in this investment curve -- that we are actually going to act as the manufacturer and developer of the ships alongside Rutan, Whitehorn told in a phone interview.

The Spaceship Company will own the intellectual property of the new spaceship design. Furthermore, the company will build spaceships -- not only for Virgin Galactic and its initial order of five spaceships and two carrier craft -- but for other customers as well, Whitehorn added.

Timetable: not hidebound

"We would like to be in development and in experimental test flying by the end of 2007. And we would like to be operating commercially by the end of 2008," Whitehorn said. "But this is a unique project. We've made it very clear...that we are not going to be hidebound to a particular timetable."

Whitehorn said that the new space tourist passenger vehicle is under design, with a mockup to be unveiled at a future date. No details as yet regarding the interior and exterior of the vehicle, but progress is being made, he said.

At least 50 to perhaps as many as 100 test flights of the new spaceship design may be undertaken at the Mojave, California spaceport. That shakeout test period would stretch out over 9 to 10 months, Whitehorn said. "There's nothing at the moment holding us up in our tracks," he concluded.


Special thanks to Imaginova's Craig Besnoy in Oshkosh for assisting in this article