Mojave, USA: White Knight Two, a flying launch pad meant to support passenger sub-orbital space travel, made its public debut here Monday. The roll-out of the composite plane marks the completion of the first phase of a programme aimed at establishing a space-liner business.
The Virgin Galactic venture is funded by British entrepreneur and billionaire, Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group.
Resembling a giant catamaran, the twin-boom, two individual fuselages are linked by a large, 140-foot (42-meter) long stretch of wing. The 'sky catamaran' will carry the Space Ship Two to a 'drop' altitude of around 48,000 feet where the six-passenger, two-pilot craft will propel pay-per-view passengers to some 65 miles (104 km) above the Earth.
Speaking on the occasion Scaled Composites founder, Burt Rutan, who is also chief technology officer and chairman emeritus of the company said that the White Knight Two may well be the largest all-composite airplane in the world today.
White Knight Two has been christened "Eve" in honour of Sir Richard Branson's mother.
Four turbofan jet engines power the White Knight Two, an aircraft that has more capability than needed for Space Ship Two operations, Rutan said. He also said that the plane had undergone extensive computational fluid dynamics (CFD) testing. CFD makes electronic wind tunnel evaluations as compared to the older form of wind tunnel testing.
"For us, this roll-out is a really important event," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. "We're going to be flying in a couple of months...ground testing starts almost immediately after this event is over," he said.
Whitehorn also said that as soon as ground evaluations were completed, "we'll put it into the air...perhaps in a few weeks or it could be about eight weeks at the maximum."
Whitehorn added: "When we are all happy...then it will start flying. That could be very soon...but there's no exact date."
As for the investments already made by Branson's Virgin Group to date, he said that it was already in the region of $100 million.
"The beauty of White Knight Two and Space Ship Two is that they can help change our relationship with space," Branson said after the roll-out. "The other thing that I admire about the system is that it has the architecture that would someday be developed into passenger carrying vehicle able to take people from A to B around the planet, outside of the atmosphere at near orbital speeds."
According to Rutan, White Knight Two also becomes the 40th aircraft of varying types to be rolled out by Scaled Composites.
Speaking about pressures in putting the programme together, Rutan noted that "you can't have schedule pressure before you fly...because that's not a safe thing to do. In terms of what the schedule will be to complete, you really don't know anything until you start flying." He referred to this as the ''downsizing of uncertainty.''
"You don't know when you're going to be done until you march through the research flight tests," Rutan emphasized.
Rutan also pointed out that the White Knight Two/Space Ship Two system was not his design. "We've got some very talented people...so the credit for thinking and having the courage to try belongs to them," he said.
These include names such as Bob Morgan, Jim Tighe, Matt Stinemetze, and Pete Siebold, who are part of a team of some 20 engineers that have worked on the programme.
According to Rutan, the White Knight Two could be ready to do a space launch with only 40 flights providing the test flights were fine, "but more than likely we'll run a few more than that," he said.
The Space Ship Two offers a spacious passenger cabin with large windows that will offer passengers a stunning sight, Rutan said. He also pointed out that passengers travelling in the White Knight Two launch aircraft will also experience a spectacular view, even as the Space Ship Two releases itself from the launch ship and blasts away towards space.
As for the readiness of the sub-orbital Space Ship Two, Whitehorn said that the vehicle is now about 70 per cent complete.
According to Whitehorn, ''...the ambition will be to fly it by the end of 2009 or early 2010 into space."
According to Whitehorn, "...the market for White Knight Two will be a lot bigger than we've estimated." In addition to supporting sub-orbital space travel, Whitehorn said the White Knight Two carrier plane will also be able to cater to a range of market needs from satellite launches to deploying unmanned aerial vehicles. The craft could also carry large amounts of cargo from point to point.
Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space transportation office said that mankind was indeed poised on the threshold of a new era of commercial space transportation.