Close encounters of the second kind

July 28, 2009

whiteknightAgainst a backdrop of an approaching thunderstorm, Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnightTwo arrived at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wis., July 27. The airplane made three high passes overhead, its twin booms and long, thin wing casting an otherworldly silhouette against the gray sky.

Hundreds of spectators packed the ropes along the flight line to witness the arrival of the first vehicle that will serve as a platform to launch commercial passengers into space. Virgin Galactic, which has ordered two of the airplanes, dubbed this one Virgin Mothership Eve—a tribute to Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson’s mother.

After passing overhead and waiting for other aircraft to make demonstrations, the airplane came in and touched down almost directly in front of Aeroshell Square on Runway 18R, the noise of its four Pratt & Whitney 306W engines practically drowned out by the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The airplane slowly taxied to the entrance of Aeroshell Square, although its extremely wide landing gear almost made the trip impossible. EAA President Tom Poberenzy proudly introduced the arrival almost before the engines were shut down.

Branson, set to fly aboard the aircraft on July 28, said it was a historic event. “It’s the start of you and me going into space,” he said. “NASA always thought about exploration but not about people visiting and looking down on this beautiful planet.” Branson, although known as a marketing king, clearly feels like this is more than a money-making opportunity—he plans to be the first space passenger, along with his mother and children.

whiteknightBurt Rutan, the airplane’s designer, said that the airplane is a joy to fly. “But if you’re landing on a narrow runway, you might want to line up on the right of centerline,” he joked, a reference to the airplane’s unusual configuration. WhiteKnightTwo is flown from the right boom, but could be set up for either, as the structures are identical. In the future, there are plans to conduct astronaut training in the fuselages, including zero gravity flights. Said Rutan, family and friends could even ride along as their loved ones are dropped from the mothership and launched into space.

Although development is going well, Rutan said, there’s no firm timetable on when the spaceship will fly. “We don’t schedule research work,” he said.

WhiteKnightTwo is expected to fly more throughout the week, meaning that even if those attending Oshkosh can’t afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars the trips into space will cost, they can feel the same sense of wonder watching a highly unusual airplane with a unique mission fly over the Wisconsin corn fields.