Hinterland Green

Monday, December 7, 2009

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, "Space Tourism Craft" To Be Unveiled in Mojave Desert

Virgin Galactic will unveil its long-waited SpaceShipTwo Monday in the Mojave Desert. After five years of secret construction, the cloak will come off the privately funded spacecraft designed to fly tourists, albeit well-heeled ones, into space. The project is bankrolled by Virgin Galactic founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan, the brains behind the venture. It is based on Rutan's design of a stubby white prototype called SpaceShipOne, which captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, by becoming the first privately manned craft to reach space.

Since the historic feat, engineers from Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC have been laboring in a Mojave hangar to commercialize the prototype in heavy secrecy. Branson said he, his family and Rutan would be the first people to make the trip in space aboard the craft, ushering in an era when people can "become astronauts." "What we want to be able to do is bring space travel down to a price range where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to experience space and they never dreamed that could happen in the past," Branson said in an interview on CNN.

The first SpaceShipTwo test flights are expected to start next year, with full space launches to its maximum altitude by or in 2011. According to the company, about 300 clients have paid the $200,000 ticket or placed a deposit. Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial spaceflights out of a taxpayer-funded spaceport in New Mexico that is under construction. The 2 1/2 hour trips – up and down flights without circling the Earth – include about five minutes of weightlessness.

SpaceShipTwo is built from lightweight composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor. It is different from its prototype cousin in three ways:  it's twice as large, measuring 60 feet long with a roomy cabin about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet; it has more windows including overhead portholes; and while SpaceShipOne was designed for three people, SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots.

SpaceShipTwo will be carried aloft by White Knight Two and released at 50,000 feet. The craft's rocket engine will burn a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel to climb more than 65 miles above the Earth's surface. After reaching the top of its trajectory, it will then fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing like a normal airplane. Its descent is controlled by "feathering" its wings to maximize aerodynamic drag. Virgin Galactic expects to spend more than $400 million for a fleet of five commercial spaceships and launch vehicles.

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