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Virgin Galactic, towards space

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jan 9, 2012, 0:00 UTC

So far nine individuals have had their dream experience of spaceflight funded privately. Virgin Galactic aims to see that number increase to many thousands in the decades to come, starting with sub-orbital space flights aboard SpaceShipTwo.

The first privately funded space flight was undertaken by Japanese television reporter Toyohiro Akiyama in 1990. In a deal between Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) and the Soviet Union, Mr Akiyama joined the Soyuz TM-11 mission and spent 8 days aboard the Mir Space Station in December 1990. In May 1991 British Dr Helen Sharman flew on Soyuz to the Mir space station with funding support from a consortium of British companies. Whilst Akiyama and Sharman were the first two private space travellers, American Dennis Tito was the first to fund an orbital space flight from his own wealth.

Since Tito’s flight on board Soyuz in April 2001 there have been several others who have paid for orbital space flights, organised by Space Adventures Ltd. Tito was followed Mark Shuttleworth, a South African entrepreneur (April 2002), Amercian Greg Olsen (October 2005), Anousheh Ansari (September 2006, the first Iranian astronaut), Charles Simonyi (who negotiated two flights, the first in April 2007 and the second in March 2009), Richard Garriott (October 2008) and Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque de Soleil, in September 2009.

Whilst the above space tourists have paid for orbital flights on board the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Virgin Galactic plans to open up the market with sub-orbital flights.

Virgin Galactic wants to make space travel accessible to a larger market. Safety is also imperative and the company insists it will not be rushed into launching operations. George Whitesides, the President and CEO of Virgin Galactic, told Sen:

“make no mistake that what we are doing is hard – really hard. There is some rationality behind the fact that only around 500 people have been to space in half a century; it is also noticeable that in the seven years since the X Prize was won by SpaceShipOne, no other private company has flown anyone anywhere in even a prototype manned spaceship. To transform the safety, the environmental impact and the commercial viability of manned spaceflight in one fell swoop is a monumental challenge”.

Virgin Galactic has been in existence for several years now, but much longer in the dreams of Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand. Having launched an airline in the 1980s, Branson began thinking about a spaceline in the 1990s.

In 2004 he saw the opportunity to commercialise SpaceShipOne, a reusable spacecraft designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and built by Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne had been commissioned by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, and succeeded in claiming the $10m Ansari X Prize for being the first non-governmental operation to launch a re-usable manned spacecraft capable of making two trips into space within a two week period. Its first flight was on the 29 September 2004, reaching 102.9km. Five days later on 4 October 2004, SpaceShipOne returned to space reaching 112km. Virgin logos appeared on SpaceShipOne as a sponsor, and shortly after the Ansari X Prize was won Rutan and Branson announced the creation of The Spaceship Company to manufacture the spaceships.

The Spaceship Company is a joint venture between Scaled Composites and Branson's Virgin group. The Spaceship Company itself is licensing the technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company Mojave Aerospace Ventures that owns the rights to the technology by reasons of its commissioning and funding SpaceShipOne. 

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, based on the design and technology of SpaceShipOne, consists of a launch craft (mothership) known as "WhiteKnightTwo" and a rocket ship "SpaceShipTwo". SpaceShipTwo is attached to the mothership which will take off horizontally and attain an altitude of about 50,000 feet before releasing SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo’s rocket will then be ignited and propel the craft, carrying 2 professional astronauts and 6 paying passengers, to an altitude of about 100km (62 miles, 360,000 feet) thereby qualifying as a space flight in accordance with the definition of space of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale being 100km.

Virgin Galactic is the first customer of The Spaceship Company having placed an order for 5 SpaceShipTwos and 2 WhiteKnightTwos.

The first mothership has been named VMS Eve after Branson’s mother. The first SpaceShipTwo was named VSS Enterprise.

On March 19 2012, Ashton Kutcher the actor became the 500th person to sign up as a future astronauts. Other astronauts who have signed up include Branson and his children Sam and Holly who will be among the first passengers to fly.

Building a spaceship is capital intensive. Known funding of Virgin Galactic includes the deposits taken from future astronauts and US$280m invested by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments in exchange for a 32% stake in 2009, valuing the business at almost $1 billion. The valuation of Virgin Galactic makes it a major asset in the Virgin Group.

Virgin Galactic is clearly Branson’s new baby. He personally signs a letter to each future astronaut and is devoting a lot of his time to the venture. Virgin Galactic is clearly seen as a huge commercial opportunity for the Virgin brand, but its also clear that its more than just a business for Branson who has a real passion for space exploration.

The test programme began in late 2008 with flights of the mothership VMS Eve. The first flight of the spaceship took place on 22 March 2010, this was called a captive carry flight as the spaceship remained attached to its mothership. With pilot Mark Stucky at the controls the flight lasted 2 hours 54 minutes and achieved an altitude of 45,000ft. 

The second captive carry flight took place on 16 May 2010, lasting 4 hours 42 minutes and reaching a peak altitude of 51,000 ft. The crew were Pete Siebold, Mark Stucky and Brian Maisler.

On its third captive carry flight on 15th July 2010, VSS Enterprise flew with crew on board for the first time. The spaceship crew were able to evaluate all of the spaceship's systems and functions. The flight lasted 6 hours 12 minutes. The mothership crew consisted of Mark Stucky, Peter Kalogiannis and Brian Maisler. On board VSS Enterprise were Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury.

The fourth captive carry flight took place on 30 September 2010. On 10th October 2010, after four successful captive carry flights, the Virgin Galactic spaceship had its first "free" flight, being released from its mothership for the first time at 46,000 feet and successfully gliding back to land at the Mojave Air and Space Port. During this first flight the spaceship was piloted by Pete Siebold, assisted by Mike Alsbury as co-pilot. The two main goals of the flight were to carry out a clean release of the spaceship from its mothership and for the pilots to free fly and glide back and land. Virgin Galactic confirmed that the first "glide" flight was a success with all systems working before and after the release of the spaceship. The pilots were also able to evaluate the stability and control of the spaceship for the first time, providing valuable data to compare with the simulator. The pilots were also able to experience a real landing for the first time (the spaceship had previously been attached to its mothership for landings).

On 28 October 2010 VSS Enterprise had its second glide flight. This time piloted by Mark Stucky with Michael Alsbury as co-pilot. Further glide flights took place on 17 November 2010 and 13 January 2011. The 17 November flight was piloted by Pete Siebold with co-pilot Clint Nichols. For the 13 January flight Mark Stucky was once again at the controls, with Clint Nichols as co-pilot again.

The 2010 glide flights all had successful releases of the spaceship and successful landings.

The test flight programme continued in 2011. SpaceShipTwo completed nine captive carry flights and thirteen glide flights in the less 24 hours (in June 2011). Feathered flights also took place during 2011 when SpaceShipTwo’s feathered wing design that will be used for re-entry was tested. WhiteKnightTwo completed its third year of flying with 31 flights. 

The rocket motor itself has had ground based tests including a full duration test fire.

The flights will operate from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Designed by British architects Foster + Partners, Spaceport America was dedicated in October 2011 as the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space”. Other launch destinations may be considered in the future.

Virgin Galactic's flights from Spaceport America are subject to US jurisdiction, and in addition to the test flight programme CEO George Whitesides is working on the licensing required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for commercial flights. 

Beyond sub-orbital flights for astronauts, the low cost and re-usability of the spacecraft offers potential for scientists to use the spaceship for launching experiments into space. The company has already secured a contract with US space agency NASA to launch experiments into space. Virgin Galactic was selected under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program to provide the space agency with up to three charter flights on SpaceShipTwo, under a contract with a value of up to US $4.5m. This will provide opportunities for engineers, technologists, and scientific researchers to conduct unmanned cutting-edge experiments in space. 

George Whitesides explains: “we are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space. An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers.”

The ability to put science into sub-orbital flight at a fraction of the cost traditionally associated with such launches could make Virgin Galactic’s technology a useful research platform. Branson commented: 

"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth’s climate and the mysteries of the universe".

Branson highlights another benefit from low-cost payload launches "[as] for applied research, it is currently just too expensive to be able to do most of the things in space from which industries like biotechnology could really benefit. The beauty of WK2 and SS2 is that they can help change the paradigm of our relationship to space, achieving an era where space accessibility becomes a commercial and scientific norm, rather than an exception."

Beyond the sub-orbital flights offered by SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic will no doubt have its ambitions on orbital flights in the longer term. If the sub-orbital system is successful there will be a large number of Virgin Galactic astronauts looking for the next big adventure, and that will be orbital space flight. Given the reported $40 – $50m current price tag through Space Adventures for an orbital flight aboard a Soyuz rocket it will be interesting to see what Virgin Galactic can do in this space. 

2012 promises further progress with the test programme, the speed and outcome of which will ultimately determine the commencement of commercial flights for the eager future astronauts.

The company is positive on progress. George Whitesides told Sen: “we really are on the final stretch now and the eyes of the world are on us. We have already faced and passed many significant milestones; we have already made history. During 2012 we hope to achieve the first powered test flight into space. From there, we hope that it will be a short road to commercial operations and we can get on with the business of turning dreams into reality.”