This story was updated at 1:46 p.m. EDT.
MOJAVE, Calif. With all the pageantry of a king?s arrival, the WhiteKnightTwo a huge flying launch pad to support passenger suborbital space travel made its public debut here Monday.
The rollout of the colossal composite plane signals the first phase of a critical test program to establish a private spaceliner business a venture being bankrolled by British entrepreneur and billionaire, Richard Branson and his Virgin Group.
Looking like a giant catamaran for the sky, the twin-boom, two individual fuselages are topped by a large, 140-foot (42-meter) long stretch of wing. The aircraft will straddle and carry to drop altitude (around 48,000 feet) the SpaceShipTwo a six passenger, two pilot craft that, once released, will rocket pay-per-view passengers to some 65 miles (104 km) above the Earth.
?This is a big airplane,? said Scaled Composites founder, Burt Rutan, and Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of the company. ?It is not an inappropriate claim to say this is the largest all-composite airplane,? he told SPACE.com.
Once a screen stretched across a hangar door adorned with the projected Virgin Galactic logo of an eye fell to the ground, the seated audience came face to face with WhiteKnightTwo positioned on the outside tarmac complete with Branson and Rutan waving from separate windows on the carrier craft. SpaceShipTwo, still under construction, was shrouded in a large black tarp just a few feet away during the unveiling of WhiteKnightTwo. The carrier aircraft has been christened "EVE" in honor of Sir Richard's mother.
Four turbofan jet engines power the WhiteKnightTwo, an aircraft that has more capability than needed for SpaceShipTwo operations, Rutan explained. The mega-plane has undergone extensive computational fluid dynamics (CFD) testing, he said that?s aerodynamic speak for utilizing electronic wind tunnel evaluations versus wind tunnel testing.
WhiteKnightTwo is the 40th aircraft of varying types to be rolled out by Scaled Composites, Rutan said. ?I think that?s more than you?ll find in any other company by a large margin.?
"The beauty of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo is that they can help change our relationship with space," Branson said after the rollout. "The other thing that I admire about the system is that it has the architecture that would someday be developed into passenger carrying vehicle able to take people from A to B around the planet, outside of the atmosphere at near orbital speeds."
Branson said he thought it was very important that Virgin Galactic make a genuine commercial success of this project. "If we do I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology," he said.
Downsize the uncertainty
While today?s show-and-tell festivities marked a major milestone, the true test of the WhiteKnightTwo and its flying attributes are still ahead here at the Mojave Air & Space Port.
Rutan noted that ?you can?t have schedule pressure before you fly?because that?s not a safe thing to do. In terms of what the schedule will be to complete, you really don?t know anything until you start flying,? he continued, calling it a downsizing of the uncertainty.
?You don?t know when you?re going to be done until you march through the research flight tests,? Rutan emphasized.
Rutan said that the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system is not a Burt Rutan design.
?We?ve got some very talented people?so the credit for thinking and having the courage to try belongs to them,? he said, underscoring the expertise of such people as Bob Morgan, Jim Tighe, Matt Stinemetze, and Pete Siebold?part of a team of some 20 engineers that worked on the endeavor. ?Of course, they had to sell me on it,? he added.
The WhiteKnightTwo could be ready to do a space launch with only 40 flights ?if everything works,? Rutan said, ?but more than likely we?ll run a few more than that.?
Largely driven by the need to snag market share of the public suborbital space tourism business, Rutan said that the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system is designed to yield a top-notch flight experience.
For one, SpaceShipTwo offers a roomy yes, call it spacious passenger cabin with great windows to afford a ticketed traveler a stunning sight, Rutan said.
Passengers riding in the WhiteKnightTwo launch aircraft will be provided a spectacular view as well with SpaceShipTwo peeling away and blasting skyward toward space.
?Riding in the launch airplane to watch a launch is going to be a cool thing to do,? Rutan pointed out.
Moreover, WhiteKnightTwo will serve as training ground albeit in the air for future space travelers. The mega-plane can provide stints of microgravity for next-in-line SpaceShipTwo flyers, Rutan noted, with the aircraft also able to give clientele six to seven Gs to mimic the forces encountered during a suborbital space jaunt.?
Too early to say
?For us, this rollout is a really important event,? said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. ?We?re going to be flying in a couple of months?ground testing starts almost immediately after this event is over,? he told SPACE.com.
Whitehorn said that as soon as that ground evaluations are finished and everyone is satisfied ?we?ll put it into the air?perhaps in a few weeks or it could be about eight weeks at the maximum.?
Whitehorn added: ?When we are all happy?then it will start flying. That could be very soon?but there?s no exact date.? In terms of money spent on the spaceliner system by Branson?s Virgin Group to date, he explained: ?We?re at 100 million dollars that has been spent so far.?
As for the readiness of the suborbital SpaceShipTwo, Whitehorn said that the vehicle is now about 70 percent complete.
?Whether or not we fly the spaceship into space next year?it?s too early to say. But the ambition will be to fly it by the end of 2009 or early 2010 into space,? Whitehorn explained.
Spotlighting the scope of what WhiteKnightTwo can provide on its own, Whitehorn offered some suggestions: ?I think the market for WhiteKnightTwo will be a lot bigger than we?ve estimated.?
In addition to supporting suborbital space travel, Whitehorn said the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane can satisfy a range of market needs from satellite launchings to deploying unmanned aerial vehicles, or toting large quantities of water to help squelch raging fires, as well as hauling hefty amounts of cargo from point to point.
"I really think we're on the threshold of a new era of commercial space transportation," said George Nield, head of the Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space transportation office in Washington, D.C. "This just makes it real?because we've got some hardware coming together and test flying starting. It's going to be an exciting next couple of years," he told SPACE.com.
Stuart Witt, General Manager of the Mojave Air & Space Port, said there?s a significance that might be missed given today?s rollout of WhiteKnightTwo.
?It?s all about results,? Witt told SPACE.com. ?That?s why people come to Mojave. The WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo?they are one more example of a result that will yield breakthroughs in aerospace. Here at the Mojave Air and Space Port, we?re all about results.?
Witt said the Air & Space Port is ready to support WhiteKnightTwo and the SpaceShipTwo test program. ?I am looking forward for Scaled Composites to get back into the rocket testing business?and on we go!?
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