WhiteKnightTwo, the mega-carrier plane that will haul Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude, is expected to make its first flight before year's end.
"It will be before Christmas ... but this is a test flying program, not a calendar appointment for a celebration dance," Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "So being more precise is difficult."
SpaceShipTwo is the successor to SpaceShipOne, the creation of Burt Rutan that made history in 2004 as the first manned, private spaceship.
After significant shakeout of WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, Virgin Galactic will run its commercial spaceline operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico, which received a license for vertical and horizontal space launches from the FAA earlier this week.
New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Steven Landeene told SPACE.com that the Virgin Galactic lease development is in near-final form. "A few issues remain that are being worked," he said. "We anticipate lease signing prior to the end of the year."
The relationship between New Mexico and Virgin Galactic, Landeene said, will pave the way for commercial space flights.
"The combination will promote low-cost access to space that will transform the industry," he added. "Scientists will have the freedom to join their experiments in space on a daily basis. People from across the globe will have the opportunity to go into space at a cost more than 100 times less than what is available today."
WhiteKnightTwo is propelled by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A turbofan engines built by Pratt & Whitney Canada, based in Longueuil, Quebec.
During public rollout ceremonies of the carrier craft last July, Scaled's lead engineer on the spaceline venture, Bob Morgan, described the airplane as "the most innovative first stage of a space launch system ever developed."
Indeed, there's a growing list of ideas for using the WhiteKnightTwo beyond hauling SpaceShipTwo. That roster of thoughts includes the launching of microsatellites, hauling large payloads from point-to-point, and perhaps having the plane serve as a water bomber to help snuff out forest fires.
Furthermore, Rutan – now Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of Scaled Composites – has indicated more than once that a souped-up WhiteKnightTwo could become a high-altitude platform for launching a piloted vehicle into Earth orbit.
While it's easy to get swept up in the vortex of Virgin Galactic's spaceline operations, there's also a fair amount of wait-and-see backwash.
Raising a cautionary flag about suborbital flight is Jane Reifert, President of Incredible Adventures, based in Sarasota, Florida. Incredible Adventures offers thrill-seeker packages from zero G hops, MiGs over Moscow, Hollywood Top Gun flights to skydive Everest and deep-diving submersible adventures.
"I think Virgin errs in trying to make people think their suborbital flights will be safe. They won't be, anymore than one of our Russian MiG flights is safe," Reifert told SPACE.com. "It doesn't matter how great the design or how many test flights are conducted, flying at high speeds and high altitudes will always be risky."
Reifert advised that people need to know and understand the real risks in order to be able to consent to accept those risks. "Besides, from a marketing perspective, you don't want to fly to space because it's nice and safe. Part of the appeal is the potential for danger."
"If they sell their flights based on the promise of a dazzling view, they better make darn sure the windows never fog over or nothing prevents a customer from seeing what they paid $200,000 plus to see," Reifert said. "If they promise people will be able to do somersaults in weightlessness in the cabin, they better make sure there's room to move without kicking a fellow passenger in the head. Nothing would spoil your suborbital space flight more than a concussion."
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.