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Richard Branson and Burt Rutan Form Spacecraft Building Company

Britishentrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, has teamed up with aerospace designer, BurtRutan of Scaled Composites to form a new aerospace production company. The newfirm will build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launchaircraft.

CalledThe Spaceship Company, the new entity will manufacturelaunch aircraft, various spacecraft and support equipment and market thoseproducts to spaceliner operators. Clients include launch customer, VirginGalactic--formed by Branson to handle space tourist flights.

TheSpaceship Company is jointly owned by Branson's Virgin Group and ScaledComposites of Mojave, California.Scaled will be contracted for research and development testing andcertification of a 9-person SpaceShipTwo (SS2)design, and a White Knight Two (WK2) mothership to becalled Eve. Rutan will head up the technical development team for the SS2/WK2combination.

Drawing fromSpaceShipOne technology

 

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

 

Bothrocket ship and the carrier aircraft will draw from Rutan's work onSpaceShipOne and the White Knight mothership. The SS2/WK2 system will adopt thereentry concept and hybrid rocket motor design work hammered out forSpaceShipOne, licensing that technology from Paul Allen's Mojave AerospaceCompany.

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

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

Future operations

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

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

Once the fleet ofsuborbital craft is built, a base from which to operate the spaceships is to beset up within the United States. "We still haven't decided on whichstate the base will be," Branson said, adding that the space tourist-carryingvehicles could rocket spaceward from the Mojave, Californiadesert, Las Vegas, New Mexico, or possibly Florida.

"That'sall to be decided," Branson said.

Seat price expectedto drop

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

ButBranson hopes that this seat price will drop over time. "Our aim is to bringthe price down," he said.

"Ourprincipal aim behind this is not to make money. The principal aim is toreinvest any money we make into space exploration," Branson said. "We expect todouble, triple, quadruple the number of astronauts in the next few years thathave currently experienced space," he said.

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

Charting theinvestment curve

Whitehornsaid that Virgin Galactic has been negotiating with Rutan over the last severalmonths to chart out how best to move forward and create a passenger-carryingrocket ship.

"Wehave decided that since this is such a new industry -- and so early in thisinvestment curve -- that we are actually going to act as the manufacturer anddeveloper of the ships alongside Rutan, Whitehorn told SPACE.com in a phone interview.

TheSpaceship Company will own the intellectual property of the new spaceshipdesign. Furthermore, the company will build spaceships -- not only for VirginGalactic and its initial order of five spaceships and two carrier craft -- butfor other customers as well, Whitehorn added.

Timetable: nothidebound

"Wewould like to be in development and in experimental test flying by the end of2007. 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 weare not going to be hidebound to a particular timetable."

Whitehorn said that the new space tourist passengervehicle is under design, with a mockup to be unveiled at a future date. Nodetails as yet regarding the interior and exterior of the vehicle, but progressis being made, he said.

Atleast 50 to perhaps as many as 100 test flights of the new spaceship design maybe undertaken at the Mojave, Californiaspaceport. 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," heconcluded.

 

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

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