SpaceShipTwo, Now a Reality.

If there’s one thing that gets me excited it is seeing news about space that makes it to Australian TV. I don’t watch that much television normally but I do catch the morning news before I head off to work for the day. So you can imagine my surprise when none other than Sir Richard Branson appeared on my TV showing off Burt Rutan’s latest creation of SpaceShipTwo. Whilst we’d known about White Knight Two for some time (and saw a couple videos of it flying around the place) the critical component was always missing. Today Sir Branson unveiled SpaceShipTwo for the first time, and it really couldn’t come any sooner:

MOJAVE, Calif. – It has been pre-sold as an “out of this world premiere” – and you can’t get more off-world than unveiling a spaceliner built to whisk customers to the edge of space.

SpaceShipTwo is making its debut here at about 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. ET (5:30 – 6 p.m. PT) today. The super-slick looking rocket plane will be showcased as the world’s first passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft. The enterprise is under the financial wing of well-heeled U.K. billionaire and adventurer, Sir Richard Branson.

Branson created Virgin Galactic – billed as the world’s first commercial spaceline.

While there are few images of the completed craft floating around I can say that the short tour they did of SpaceShipTwo on the news this morning was spectacular. The renders it seems must have been pulled from the design files because the completed craft is almost identical to it’s 3D representation. Branson apparently wasn’t allowed to show the inside of the craft (due to FAA regulations apparently) but I’d also hazard a guess that the internals weren’t fully completed. The windows, for example, were completely blacked (well to be honest they looked painted on) out leading me to believe that they haven’t certified them yet. Still the first test flight is scheduled for tomorrow meaning that the majority of the flight hardware is in there, a significant milestone indeed.

Branson also let loose a few other interesting details. Firstly the next 18 months will be spent testing and verifying the craft’s capabilities. If this is going to be anything like the SpaceShipOne program they’ll do around 20 test flights the majority of which will be verifying the aerodynamic characteristics of the craft with about a quarter of them being powered flights to test the rocket engine and feathering system. 18 months is a fairly aggressive timeline for verification of a new craft but they’ve done this before so much of the groundwork is already laid, they just need to prove it will be safe enough for their paying customers.

And therein is the second tidbit of information that Branson let slip. There are already 300 customers who have paid the US$200,000 price tag for a flight and several thousand who paid a security deposit to secure a flight at a later date. Branson said several times that their main concern was reducing the costs to make space travel far more accessible and by the looks of it he has no shortage of early adopters who are willing to foot the bill. To really put his money where his mouth is his whole family will be going up on board the very first commercial flight, cementing his rhetoric in everyone’s minds.

Another fact which piqued my interest was the possibility of tiered flights. You see many people of varying age groups are going to want to use this service and they all have different physical capabilties. We all have an innate limit of how many g-forces we can take before blacking out and the comfort zone is well below that. For the majority of us the GLOC is between 4~6gs however this can be alleviated in 3 ways: changing the way you sit (like an astronaut laying down), applying the force gradually and wearing a special suit. Branson has mentioned all three of these characteristics before however today he mentioned that older people and those with medical conditions would still be able to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo however they wouldn’t be sent as high into space limiting any strain on their bodies. Its an interesting idea and definitely increases his potential market, but we’ll have to see how it pans out.

With this announcement Virgin Galactic has stepped out from the vaporware shadows that everyone had relegated them to. It’s an exciting time for commercial space travel with people like Branson creating the buzz that companies like SpaceX will be able to ride once their crafts are ready for human endeavours. The next 10 years are going to be extremely interesting as we see the rise of the new adventurers who dare to explore this final frontier.

Note: Just as I was about to hit the publish button on this article a friend of mine sent me this picture from the Space Fellowship:

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Absolutely magnificent.

My thanks to Danne for sending me that pic! 😀

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