SpaceShip Two Unveiled

We’ve long been fans of space tourism generally and Virgin Galactic specifically — in large part because of a longstanding admiration for the design skills of Burt Rutan.

Now, we can ooh and ahh at the symmetry of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two and its launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo; designs for both were unveiled yesterday.


MSNBC provides the details: 

[Yesterday’s unveiling] was the most detailed look yet at the craft that will carry on the legacy of SpaceShipOne, the first commercially developed spaceship and winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

The biggest twist is that the WhiteKnightTwo plane has spread out and sprouted another passenger cabin on its 140-foot-long wing. The two cabins and four Pratt & Whitney jet engines straddle a central mount for the rocket plane, which will be carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet and dropped. Then SpaceShipTwo will light up its hybrid rocket engine for the final push to the edge of outer space, reaching an altitude of at least 68 miles (110 kilometers).

The twin cabins are basically carbon copies of the SpaceShipTwo cabin, so riding on WhiteKnightTwo will give passengers a taste of what the big blast to space will be like. While commercial astronauts are taking their trip to see the curving earth below the black sky of space, the passengers on WhiteKnightTwo will experience a lower-altitude version of the experience – including a bit of zero-G.

Why two cabins on the mothership?

Burt Rutan, the craft’s designer and head of California-based Scaled Composites, imagined a scenario in which a husband riding in the mothership watches his wife take off in the spaceship, sitting only 25 feet away.

"You’ll say, ‘Honey, have a nice flight,’" Rutan told scores of journalists and dignitaries at the American Museum of Natural History. "While she is enjoying black sky and weightlessness, you, in the launch airplane, will be doing parabolas and floating about the cabin."

So what’s it like?

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space, with enough headroom to allow for free floating. It’s about twice as large as SpaceShipOne, with 18-inch-wide windows and reclining seats for fare-paying fliers.

More than 100 people are already in line for spaceflights, at a cost of $200,000 per person, and Rutan expects there to be thousands more: He said the innovations incorporated into SpaceShipTwo will make human spaceflight "at least as safe as the airliners of the late ’20s."

Hmm. "At least as safe as the airliners of the ’20s" doesn’t really inspire the highest degree of confidence. Maybe they should come up with a better comparison. 


Virgin Galactic is aiming to begin passenger flights in 2010.