By Alton K. Marsh
Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson has unveiled a model of SpaceShipTwo. The full-scale version will carry six tourists at a time more than 62 miles up into space.
Both the rocket and the four-engine launch aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, also unveiled in New York on Jan. 23, are more than half complete at Scaled Composites where Burt Rutan pioneered civilian spaceflight with SpaceShipOne and won a $10 million X Prize in the process.
For $200,000 you can depart on a 2.5-hour flight that ends with a few minutes of rocket-powered flight, capped by five minutes of weightlessness and a view from space. Initially, the suborbital flights will depart from Mojave, Calif., but could eventually spread to launch sites around the world.
When will it all begin? That’s impossible to say, given that there are still decisions to be made concerning the rocket engine design. An explosion of rocket fuel during what was expected to be a safe test last summer killed three workers at Scaled Composites and brought potential fines from California authorities of more than $25,000 for failing to provide information and training on the health and physical hazards associated with nitrous oxide. There is speculation in recent press reports that the engine design may need to be reviewed.
There have been 80 people tested and trained for the first flights, including Branson, and 78 were found to have the stamina to handle the G forces required. Branson reportedly told a press conference he has reserved seats for his mother and father, assuming they want to go.
That said, hopes are to start a year- to 18-month-long test phase as soon as mid-2008. That would allow tourist flights to begin perhaps as early as the winter of 2009-2010. There are numerous other companies planning to launch tourists into space.
January 24, 2008