Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virgin Galactic Update: New Design Unveiled

From the New York Times:

Entrepreneur Unveils New Tourist Spacecraft

Burt Rutan took the cloak off of his new spacecraft on Wednesday.

Mr. Rutan, the creator of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed craft to carry a human into space, traveled to New York to show detailed models of the bigger SpaceShipTwo and its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo.

“2008 will really be the year of the spaceship,” said Sir Richard Branson, the British serial entrepreneur, at the heavily attended press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Sir Richard, who founded a company, Virgin Galactic, that promises to take tourists on brief trips to the edge of space, was there to show off the sleek pod of a spacecraft and its spidery carrier plane.

WhiteKnight, a two-fuselage, four-engine plane in its new incarnation, will ferry the smaller spacecraft high into the sky and release it. The spacecraft pilot then fires the craft’s rocket engine, which burns a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel, and shoots the vehicle upward to an altitude of more than 62 miles, the realm of black sky.

Once there, the pilot is to activate the craft’s innovative feathered wing, which rotates into a position that greatly increases aerodynamic drag and slows the craft for a glider landing back on earth.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne earned Mr. Rutan and his backer, Paul Allen, the $10 million Ansari X Prize when it carried a pilot to the edge of space twice in five days. Since then, Mr. Rutan has been working on the follow-up vehicle for Sir Richard, under his customary heavy secrecy.

Officials at the press conference said that the WhiteKnight aircraft is 70 percent complete and that SpaceShipTwo is 60 percent complete. Test flights of the planes could occur this year. Passenger flights are not expected to begin before late 2009 or 2010.

But Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, said that the company would not yet set a date for the startup of commercial flights, which will depend not just on testing and manufacturing but also on government approval. “We don’t want to make promises that we can’t meet,” Mr. Whitehorn said. “We’re in a race with nobody, apart from a race with safety.”

Mr. Rutan said that the new space travel system would have to be “hundreds” of times safer than present space flight, which he put at the level of safety of the early commercial aircraft of the 1920s.

“Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the safety level of new spaceships will be as safe as the modern airliner,” he said, but the risk must nonetheless be brought to an acceptable level for the customers to come.

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