The beginnings of Virgin Galactic can be traced way back to 2002, when Virgin commissioned American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to design and build the Virgin GlobalFlyer. Inspired by Rutan’s earlier record breaking ‘Voyageur’ aircraft, the adventurous head of Virgin Sir Richard Branson desired an aircraft that could circumnavigate the globe on a single tank of fuel and set a new world record for longest flight. Virgin also learned about Rutan’s Space Ship One (SS1) program. This was an attempt to compete for the infamous Ansari X Prize by building a reusable air launched space craft. Richard Branson pledged that if the project was successful he would license Rutan’s company to build and design a fleet of space craft capable of commercially viable space flight.
Of course Spaceship One was successful and shortly after, Rutan and Branson announce the Space Ship Company. This was a joint venture with Virgin Galactic being the majority stakeholder and Rutan’s company ‘Scaled Composites’ supplying the fleet of space ships and launch craft. Branson also brought on board Microsofts co-founder Paul Allen, and his company ‘Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ who owns and funded the original SS1. In 2005 initial reservations for the first commercial flights were opened up my means of a $200,000 refundable deposit with a hope of flights beginning by 2007. There was monumental demand for the initial 100 ‘founder’ places with every reservation being taken and the booking website eventually crashing.
The next challenge would be to build on the success of SS1 and develop a vessel capable of carrying two pilots and six passengers into space, but with enough room to experience zero gravity, and a viewing experience to justify the expense. So begins the design of Space Ship two (SS2) and the new mothership White Knight Two (WK2). In addition, Virgin Galactic also needed a purpose build facility to bring operations together and realise the vision of putting people into space. So begins development of Spaceport America.
Spaceport America is a British designed purpose built gateway to the stars. Largely funded by and situated in the state of New Mexico, the futuristic structure has cost about £250 million to build. Stated as being the worlds first commercial spaceport, Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactics world head quarters and be responsible for all space flights. Construction began on 4 April 2006 with the aim of being completed by 2010. This was perhaps a little optimistic however as even today the construction has not been completely concluded.
The concept of affordable commercial space flight is that passengers will be launched from space, rather than from ground based rockets which are much more expensive. Passengers will travel in the SS2 spacecraft which will be piggybacked to the fringes of space by the WK2 mothership. Once at the very edge of space the mothership will release the SS2 which will subsequently fire its own rocket and propel itself into space where passengers will experience zero gravity. The SS2 will then ‘feather’ before gliding back to Earth. Both the SS2 and the WK2 are fully reusable.
On 26 July 2007 Virgin Galactic experienced its first major disaster. In what was a major set back for the company, a rocket destined for the SS2 unexpectedly exploded at Scaled Composites killing three people and seriously injuring a further three. Virgin Galactic had envisioned starting test flights and as result of this disaster the SS2 program was shut down for a year. Independent investigators were unable to discover what exactly had gone wrong and as a result engineers decided to completely strip down SS2’s propulsion system and start again from scratch. According to Wired this all had a huge effect on Scaled Composite skipper Burt Rutan who eventually stepped down as CEO because of heart issues.
The testing of different engine and fuel configurations for SS2 subsequently pushed powered flight testing back to the end of 2012, with manned orbital flights destined to start in 2015 (Wired). Fortunately progress with the launch vessel WK2 was going well and as such at the end of 2008 WK2 – re-christened Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve – took off on its maiden test flight. At the back end of 2009 The first SS2 space craft is revealed attached to its mothership VMS Eve, and the Space ship is officially named Virgin Spaceship Enterprise.
2012 was also important for Virgin Galactic when they showed their desire to branch out with the new Launcher One ‘a low cost, highly flexible small satellite launch vehicle’ (Virgin Galactic). This satellite launching program is designed to launch small payloads into orbit but at a ‘fraction of the cost of a conventional system’ (Wired). The payload will be carried by SS2, then propelled by an air launched rocket into orbit. Virgin Galactic have also expressed a desire to expand into Earth based point to point transport whereby passengers will travel into orbit in order to shorten the travel time. Virgin Galactic do not currently have a vessel capable of achieving this, however with SS2 achieving mach 1.22 in April 2013, the technology sure has the potential.
What is pretty amazing about the story of Virgin Galactic is that the company has overcome obstacle after obstacle and has remained true to its original aim of providing the worlds first platform for commercial space travel. Although test flights have been delayed, and Virgin Galactic have yet to actually get a customer into space, the company is so close to achieving this aim and I think we are on the verge of seeing something truly amazing. Yes this sort of space travel is hardly cheap but think about the possibilities! This is only the first step and we can be sure to see space travel becoming more efficient and affordable. Virgin Galactic has achieved something monumental and I just cant wait to see how it all pans out.
For more info check out this great article from Wired:
Another great article concerning the Spaceport can be found in on the Daily Mail: