Virgin Galactic Spaceliner Steps Forward

Apassenger-carrying suborbital spaceliner and the airplane that will serve asits first stage are starting to take shape on the factory floors at ScaledComposites of Mojave, Calif. 

Work on theSpaceShipTwo prototype is moving forward, as is the fabrication of the WhiteKnight 2 mothership, and at this point spaceline operator Virgin Galactic iseyeing late 2009 as the beginning of commercial flights with paying customers.

ScaledComposites is the firm led by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose teamdesigned and built SpaceShipOne, the vehicle that made a trio of pilotedsuborbital flights in 2004, snagging the $10 million Ansari X Prize bycompleting back-to-back suborbital hops within a two-week time period.

When ScaledComposites developed SpaceShipOne, the company viewed it as Tier 1 of an effortwhose next step, Tier 1b, would be manufacturing a fleet of space planes tocarry commercial passengers on suborbital trips into space.

In July2005, Rutan and U.K. billionaire Sir Richard Bransonannounced they had signed an agreement to form The Spaceship Co., to be jointly owned by Virgin and ScaledComposites. The new aerospace production group was created to manufacturelaunch aircraft, spaceships and support equipment and market them to spacelineoperators, including Branson's Virgin Galactic, which placed orders for fivespaceships and two launch aircraft with options on additional systems.Branson's order secured the exclusive use of the systems for the initial 18months of commercial passenger operations.

SpaceShipTwowill be carried to launch altitude by the aircraft White Knight 2, which willrelease the space vehicle for launch at an altitude of 18,288 meters. The spacevehicle is being built to seat six passengers and two pilots. The price to buya ticket now is $200,000, which covers pre-training, the suborbital trip to analtitude of 109.4 kilometers and post-landing frivolity.

At present,Virgin Galactic has $20 million in deposits, said Will Whitehorn, the company'spresident. "We just surpassed the 200-customer level in terms of people whohave actually made a financial commitment, put their money down and signedtheir contracts," Whitehorn said.

Spacetravel registrations on the Virgin Galactic Internet Web site, number about82,000 expressions of interest, Whitehorn said. "Those registrations aregenuine ... with quite a number prepared to sign in the next three or four years.But they do want to see a finished spaceship before they are prepared tocommit. I don't blame them for that. We're hoping to have a working spaceshipthat's actually commencing spaceflight in its test mode by the middle of 2008."

Whitehornsaid more than 100 test flights are scheduled to give spaceliner operations agood shakeout. He estimated the first commercial flights will occur by the endof 2009 and possibly sooner if the planned trial runs prove to be trouble-free.

Whitehornsaid that flight tests of the SpaceShipTwo/White Knight 2 will take place outof the inland spaceport at Mojave, Calif. "I imagine even the early flyingprogram of commercial flights in late 2009 will be from Mojave," he said.

After thoseinitial flights, he said the company also plans to use New Mexico's Spaceport America, especially as more facilities areadded there around 2010. At least "that's the scenario we're working on at themoment," Whitehorn said.

Mojavetest program

In June2004, the Federal Aviation Administration's Associate Administrator forCommercial Space Transportation granted the Mojave Airport a launch site operator license --making it the first inland spaceport on the books.

"Thespaceport is ready when they are," said Stuart Witt, Mojave Airport and spaceport manager. "Our new 12,500 foot by 200 foot[3,810 meter by 61 meter] runway is complete. Security systems are complete orbeing installed. Our communication and access systems are complete. Newconstruction is under way at several locations. Our new water system isscheduled for installation this year," he said.

For hispart, Rutan is tight-lipped regarding Scaled Composites' progress building SpaceShipTwoand the super-jumbo White Knight 2 carrier spacecraft. A few joint releasesbetween Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have been issued in the past, butno schedule information.

"Like ourother research programs we generally do not provide information until theprototypes are ready to fly," Rutan told Space News. "It is likely that when weroll out the prototype, SpaceShipTwo, we will provide an estimate for theschedule of the production spaceships so the public can have a general idea ofwhen the commercial spaceline flights might begin," he added.

"Havepatience ... this is a very big program," he said, adding that commercialsystems for routine public flight are a lot more difficult than winning the XPrize.

"Everybodywants to know when we're going to be flying ... and details about the schedule.But I don't want to put the pressure on Scaled to perform to an artificialschedule. We've asked them to deliver the best possible spaceship. I haven'ttold him when he should deliver it," said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic's chiefoperating officer.

"There's alot of testing built into the program at this stage. It is appropriate as adevelopment program to say things are going ahead exceptionally well ... andwe're proceeding along with the schedule. I'm very happy with the progress todate," Tai said.


Meanwhile,phased work on New Mexico's Spaceport America has begun. The facilities will belocated 48.3 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences, N.M. and 72.4 kilometersnorth of Las Cruces, N.M. This site was picked for its low-population density, uncongestedairspace and high elevation.

In December2005, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Branson, chairman of the VirginCompanies, announced that Virgin Galactic would locate its world headquartersand mission control operations in New Mexico.

Spaceport America's construction is to progress intwo phases. Phase 1 is the programming stage, which includes the constructionof related infrastructure such as roads, utilities, etc. Phase 2 will involvethe full-fledged design of the spaceport itself.

"Thecritical path here is the environmental impact statement and [spaceport]license from the Federal Aviation Administration," said Rick Homans, chairmanof the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state's Cabinet Secretary ofEconomic Development.

"All isgoing okay ... taking a little longer than expected, as should be expected," Homanssaid. Extra effort is being taken to work with state, county and privatestakeholders in order to design and build the first "purpose built" spaceport.

"We'relooking at a 20-mile (32.2 kilometer) radius around the spaceport," Homanssaid, and making the facility as environmentally sensitive to area interests isa top priority. A draft environmental impact statement for the spaceport shouldbe completed in April or May, he said.

Tenantsand lease holders

"We wouldlike to have the [spaceport] license by the end of this year or the verybeginning of 2008," Homans added. Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic are also negotiating the details of a legallybinding term sheet that will be developed into a formal and legal leaseagreement, Homans said.

The termsheet begins to define the operational structure of Spaceport America, as well the relationship andresponsibilities between the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the facility'stenants and lease holders.

"It alsoreflects a structure and a process to establish user fees ... the beginning of aformula to do that. We want to develop something that sets a precedent and atemplate for other tenants in the future," Homans said. The other thing itdoes, he said, is set prices for the exclusive facilities Virgin Galactic willbe using, as well costs associated for them to utilize common Spaceport Americaamenities.

To preparefor the start of operations, Spaceport America is expected to spend between $150 million and $200 million, butenhancements would push the facility to becoming a $225 million site in thefuture, Homans said.

"It's alluncharted territory," Homans stated. "The space tourism piece is just the verybeginning of where all this is headed ... and driving this in a very large way isVirgin Galactic."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.