White Knight Two makes successful first flight


Peculiar plane designed to launch space tourism

December 24, 2008

White Knight Two with Branson and Rutan White Knight Two - photo courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

The odd-looking aircraft designed to help launch the fledgling space tourism industry made its first flight Dec. 22 in Mojave, Calif., and reached an altitude of 16,000 feet.

The hour-long flight went smoothly despite a rare snowfall that coated the high desert with snow.

The twin-fuselage, composite, four-engine, White Knight Two is designed to carry the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet. There, it will release the Burt Rutan-designed, rocket plane on sub-orbital flights carrying high-paying space tourists.

“It all went well,” said Dick Rutan, a record-setting pilot and the designer’s brother. “All the big things worked. Overall, 99 percent on target and everybody is really happy. You get an airplane that’s this weird and get it up and get it down . . . and it’s safe on deck.”

White Knight Two is a larger, more complex, heavy lifting version of the original White Knight that carried SpaceShipOne to altitude. SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first privately funded aircraft to make a pair of flights to the edge of space within two weeks.