The multi-branch company Virgin Group led by Sir Richard Branson is very diverse, to say the least. They have influences almost everywhere, and more so in the aviation industry, as you must already know (who has not heard about Virgin Atlantic, their airlines company?). It was not until 2004, that they announced that they were stepping into the space tourism business, with their new company, part of Virgin Group, which would be fashionably called “Virgin Galactic”.
Branson started this venture in 2004, when it was being widely known that the NASA shuttle program would come to an end within the coming decade. This was done mainly to bridge the gap between highly advanced technologies that could launch us into space, along with an imaginative population who could pay for making their dreams come true; and a stop to the possibilities due to the end to the shuttle program.
Virgin Galactic is a space tourism company which develops spacecraft with the goal of providing suborbital spaceflights to paying customers who want to go to space and grant civilians access to space. The company is also working to develop an orbital launch vehicle (LauncherOne) for satellite launch. In order to achieve this goal, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip program needed a manufacturer, therefore The Spaceship Company (TSC) was born in mid-2005 which would own and follow-on the technology created by Scaled Composites (WhiteKnightOne – spaceship carrier and SpaceShipOne – spaceplane). The Spaceship Company was created mainly by Richard Branson through Virgin Group (with 70% shares) and Burt Rutan through Scaled Composites (with 30% shares), but by 2012 Virgin Galactic acquired 100% ownership. By 2016, only one WhiteKnightTwo and two SpaceShipTwos were built by Scaled Composites, with one of the SpaceShipTwos being destroyed in an accident. Virgin Galactic has contracted to purchase two WhiteKnightTwos and five SpaceShipTwos and it is expected that they will begin operating commercial suborbital spaceflights in the next few years, flying passengers into space.
The X Prize – How to jump-start space tourism
The X Prize was announced on the lines of the Orteig Prize, which was offered back in 1919 for pilots who would fly across the Atlantic in a non-stop trip. It was won in 1927, and it had been thought that “such a prize, updated and offered … as a space prize, might be just what was needed to bring space travel to the general public, to jump-start a commercial space industry” (Peter Diamandis, The Spirit of St. Louis). And so it did. There were several newcomers into the field, and they all are currently developing at a cut-throat pace, to come up with technology that could make manned space flights possible for tourism purposes. In fact, there have even been plans to open up space hotels, which is a unique proposition, as it marks a rapid change in the pace of development. Space tourism has taken the front row seat in the number of breakthroughs done by private organizations. And Virgin Galactic, backed by Mr. Rutan’s prowess, is spearheading this development, along with some select few names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others. The X Prize as it was initially called has been renamed the “Ansari X Prize” on May 6,
The Tier One project designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder) was the winner of the Ansari X Prize that was supposed to be given to anyone who could demonstrate the launch of a manned spaceflight over the altitude of 100km, twice within two weeks. This prize was announced back in 1996, to speed up developments in the non-governmental research about space technologies, and the prize amount was a whopping $10 million. Once the prize was given, several other prizes were announced. Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer, worked on the spacecraft SpaceShipOne, which was piloted by Mike Melvil on the flight X1 (September 29, 2004) and Brian Binnie, on the flight X2 (October 4, 2004). The altitudes of both the flights were 102.9 km and 112 km, respectively. This marked a great start to the capabilities of private companies and individuals. Other contestants were only able to complete low-altitude tests and the like.
The Orteig Prize was met with numerous lives lost and numerous crashes, as pilots were trying to fly across the Atlantic by plane. According to some reports, at least six men had died while flying for the prize, in three separate crashes, and three more were injured in a fourth crash. This was met with a lot of criticism, but in the end, it was the turning point for our aviation capabilities, as we see more than 3000 flights each day over the Atlantic Ocean. History repeats itself as one of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crafts suffered the same fate, as was repeated by the crash of VSS Enterprise. The crash happened on October 31, 2014, when the spaceship crashed in the Mojave Desert, shortly after launching from the mothership. The 39-year old pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in the crash, and 43-year old pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured. Back in 2007 there was also an incident when the nitrous oxide tank blasted in the Mojave Desert, killing three Scaled Composite employees, Todd Ivens, Eric Blackwell and Charles May.
Notwithstanding the setbacks, Virgin Galactic is marching ahead with safer plans, more testing and further developments. They have developed numerous crafts and technologies, in order to make the ultimate dream of space flight come true. Their crafts are listed as:
Virgin Galactic aircraft and spacecraft fleet
1.1. WhiteKnightOne: The WhiteKnightOne is a manned twin turbojet carrier aircraft used to launch SpaceShipOne experimental spacecraft from high-altitude. Scaled Composites developed the aircraft as part their Tier One program, with a completely new independent design. This aircraft is the predecessor to WhiteKnightTwo which has a similar design. White Knight’s first flight was on August 1, 2002, with a second one on August 5, 2002. From May 20, 2003 to October 4, 2004 the carrier aircraft performed 17 flights carrying SpaceShipOne. Between June 2005 and April 2006 the carrier aircraft was also used to carry and launch Boeing X-37 experimental spaceplane. WhiteKnightOne made its final flight on July 2014, the aircraft being retired at Paine Field in Everret, Washington, as part of the flying heritage collection.
1.2. WhiteKnightTwo (VMS Eve): The mothership of the Virgin Galactic flights is called the WhiteKnightTwo which is used as a special craft to launch their latest designed SpaceShipTwo from high-altitude. WhiteKnightTwo is a huge double-hulled craft that is joined by a shared wing with a wingspan of 141 ft (43 m) and length of 78 ft 9 in (24 m). This special design has multi-purpose use, WhiteKnightTwo could function as a zero-g aircraft allowing passenger training or even perform microgravity science flights, generally speaking handle missions in high-altitude. It can lift around 17,000 kg of payload up to 50,000 ft (15 km). VMS Eve was manufactured by Scaled Composites and was rolled out on July 28, 2008, in Mojave, California, at the Mojave Spaceport. Between December 2008 and August 2009, nearly twenty flight tests were made in order to validate the design of the aircraft, and by 2010 testing with SpaceShipTwo was undertaken. So far only one WhiteKnightTwo aircraft was built and a second one is underway. In 2016 VMS Eve commenced flight testing of VSS Unity performing Captive Carry Flights.
2.1. SpaceShipOne: The SpaceShipOne was the first privately owned spaceship that could perform a high-altitude flight back in 2004. It is an experimental air-launched rocket-powered spacecraft created by Mojave Aerospace Ventures (joint venture between Paul Allen and Scaled Composites). SpaceShipOne uses a hybrid rocket motor along a unique “feathering” atmospheric re-entry system which allows the spaceship to remain stable on re-entry. On the one-hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ historic first powered flight, December 17, 2003, SpaceShipOne performed its first supersonic flight reaching the apogee of 20.67 km. This spacecraft was part of the Tier One project and together with the launch aircraft WhiteKnightOne, it won the Ansari X Prize on October 4, 2004 after performing the flight 17P. On this spaceflight SpaceShipOne achieved a top speed of Mach 3.09 and an altitude of 112.014 km.
2.2. SpaceShipTwo (VSS Enterprise †): This spacecraft was unveiled in 2009, by Branson, who noted that it would carry fare-paying passengers to a low orbit flight, just above the limits of the atmosphere. In April 2013 VSS Enterprise made its first powered flight. It was backed by a hybrid rocket concept, and was based on the SpaceShipOne model, which was the winner of the Ansari X Prize, as stated above. SpaceShipTwo would be its big brother. It was literally a big brother to the SpaceShipOne, as it is much larger than the original design. Where the original craft could carry one pilot and two passengers, the SpaceShipTwo was built to be able to carry a crew of two and a passenger base of six people in a single flight. After the announcement, the prices of tickets were also set, and by August, 2013, almost 640 customers had paid the hefty $200,000 price for tickets. The prices of the tickets were increased to $250,000 in May, 2013. Some significant personalities who have bought the tickets are Stephen Hawking, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and many more. Unfortunately VSS Enterprise crashed on 31 October 2014 and was destroyed, after a premature deployment of the “feathering” system.
2.3. SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity): VSS Unity is the second SpaceShipTwo to be used by Virgin Galactic and the first one to be built by The Space Company. It is a suborbital spaceplane which can carry six people to space. It was rolled out on 19 February 2016, validated the system integration testing in September 2016 and had its first flight on 8 September 2016 (captive carry flight). VSS Unity was the name given by Professor Stephen Hawking who is willing to ride aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane when it becomes operational. He even contributed to the model used for the eye logo on the rear side of Unity, which is his eye. The spacecraft is expected to go in service in 2017. Work on two more SpaceShipTwos is under way (VSS 3 & VSS 4), as Virgin Galactic seeks to enlarge its spacecraft and aircraft fleet.
3.1 LauncherOne (LEO) & Cosmic Girl: LauncherOne also called LEO will be the orbital launch vehicle that Virgin Galactic will be using for satellite launches. The design of this launch vehicle is to be an expendable two-stage rocket powered by “Newton” engines, that are liquid rocket engines. Back in 2012, Virgin Galactic announced that LauncherOne would be designed to carry payloads of maximum 200 kilograms into Earth orbit. The price for one such 200 kg payload dispatch has been announced to be $10 million. Virgin Galactic has already had many commercial contracts with multiple customers, such as GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging and the like, who would like to send their payloads into space for commercial or research work. LauncherOne will be able to deliver the payloads directly into the sun-synchronous orbit.
In the initial plans, LauncherOne was to be flown (carried) by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, but in December 2015 Virgin announced that the carrier aircraft for LEO operations will be a Boeing 747-41R , called Cosmic Girl. This modified airplane will perform as a launch platform, and it will carry LauncherOne to the altitude of 11 km or 35,000 ft followed by an air launch. By choosing the Boeing 747-41R as a launch aircraft, LauncherOne doubles its payload, from 200 kg (440lb) to 400 kg (880 lb). LEO is attached to Cosmic Girl by a pylon located between the fuselage and the left inboard engine. Orbital test launches of the rocket are scheduled for 2017, Virgin announcing the use of NewtonThree engine to power the booster stage and NewtonFour engine to power the second stage of LauncherOne air launch to orbit rocket.
Spaceport America: The company announced back in 2008, that the test flights of all its crafts would take place at Mojave Air and Space Port, in Mojave, California, the place where Scaled Composites is developing the crafts. In total, two WhiteKnightTwos and five SpaceShipTwos would be tested for space flights. Also, Virgin Group announced that Virgin Galactic could operate in Europe from Spaceport Sweden or RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. In 2010, Spaceport America in New Mexico became the operating base for Virgin’s spacecraft and aircraft fleet (SpaceShipTwo & WhiteKnightTwo). Spaceport America is also home to SpaceX’s Flacon 9R and hosts other suborbital launches. Virgin’s spaceline has the intention to operate worldwide, so future spaceports are planned in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.
Although there have been numerous delays in the SpaceShipTwo flight tests, despite assurances from the marketing team that the flights would be operational only within a year or two, the developments are still going at a break-neck speed. Mr. Branson keeps giving out upbeat projections about the prospects despite the company facing numerous hurdles on the technical aspects. Safety and stability concerns have been rampant, and have even created some tensions within the company’s top brass and the technical experts. It has been noted that the company has internal milestones with regard to the completion of the project, regarding schedules and goals, but the safety concerns are foremost in this regard, and the reason for the delays. This is understandable, and commendable in a way, that the company is concerned about the safety of the people who would be going out into space, keeping in sight the accidents that have marred the clean track record of the company. So we, as people who are anticipating every move of the company with utmost exuberance, can wait for them to make sure that it is a green signal for us, before we jump on the space-flight bandwagon.
Virgin Galactic Presentation Video