SpaceShipTwo moves Branson's space airline closer to reality

Virgin Galactic co-founder Richard Branson now has a commercial space ship to take his paying passengers into the heavens. The SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise debuted yesterday and is slated to take flight some time in 2011.
Written by John Dodge, Contributor on

Richard Branson could turn out to be the Christopher Columbus of the Space Age. He's taking anyone who can drop $200,000 into the new world only this time, it's space.

Yesterday, Branson's space airline Virgin Galatic unveiled SpaceShipTwo (SS2) which promises to carry six paying passengers into space along with a crew of two pilots. SS2 takes off on a runway like a conventional plane, but is sandwiched between two half jet planes known at the WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle. At  50,000 feet, the WhiteKnightTwo releases SS2, which lights its rocket engine and like a bullet, zips into space.

SS2 sandwiched between the WhiteKnightTwo

Ever the optimist, Branson and his partner, aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, are so confident of their mission that he has 20 "Accredited Space Agents" in North American standing by to take your reservation and $20,000 deposit. Six other continents have agents as well and 300 who have plunked down the deposit attended the SS2's unveiling in the Mojave Desert yesterday, according to a story in National Geographic.

The precursor to the SS2 was the 28 foot long SS1 which successfully and shakily took to flight in 2004. By comparison, the SS2 is 60 feet long and much more spacious which enough room so its occupants and can freely experience the weightlessness of space. SS2 is similar in size to a Falcon 90 jet. The first SS2 is named the VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise while the first WhiteKnightTwo is the VSS Eve after Branson's mother.

Both  the WhiteKnightTwo, which flew for the first time in July, and the SS2 are make of carbon fiber composites. SS2's introduction comes just before the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jetliner is supposed to fly for the first time. It's made from 50 per cent composites, more than any other large passenger jetliner.

Falcon 90 jet credit:worldofstock.com

How safe would a flight be? Damned dangerous given it's never been done before and judging from when  SS1 nearly spun out of control on its maiden voyage.

But Virgin Galatic spends a lot of time talking about Safety with respect to SS2's safer hybrid rocket engine which uses a less volatile rocket fuel and aerodynamics so SS2 can glide back to earth. Branson says they are making the trip as "safe they can possibility make it" which I interpret to be risky.

Ever the dreamer, Branson is also a doer who is giving NASA a run for the piles of money it spends. Depending on the success in testing, the first flight sub-orbital SS2 flight is planned for some time in 2011.

To understand Branson's vision, watch the video below.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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