From nytimes.com By JOHN SCHWARTZ Published: January 23, 2008
Burt Rutan took the cloak off of his new spacecraft on Wednesday.
Mr. Rutan, the creator of SpaceShipOne, the first privately-financed craft to carry a human into space, traveled to New York to show detailed models of the bigger SpaceShipTwo and its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo (see images below).
â€œ2008 will really be the year of the spaceship,â€ said Sir Richard Branson, the British serial entrepreneur, at the heavily attended press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Sir Richard, who founded a company, Virgin Galactic, that promises to take tourists on brief trips to the edge of space, was there to show off the sleek pod of a spacecraft and its spidery carrier plane.
WhiteKnight, a two-fuselage, four-engine plane in its new incarnation, will ferry the smaller spacecraft high into the sky and release it. The spacecraft pilot then fires the craftâ€™s rocket engine, which burns a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel, and shoots the vehicle upward to an altitude of more than 62 miles, the realm of black sky.
Once there, the pilot is to activate the craftâ€™s innovative feathered wing, which rotates into a position that greatly increases aerodynamic drag and slows the craft for a glider landing back on earth.
In 2004, SpaceShipOne earned Mr. Rutan and his backer, Paul Allen, the $10 million Ansari X Prize when it carried a pilot to the edge of space twice in five days. Since then, Mr. Rutan has been working on the follow-up vehicle for Sir Richard, under his customary heavy secrecy.
Officials at the press conference said that the WhiteKnight aircraft is 70 percent complete and that SpaceShipTwo is 60 percent complete. Test flights of the planes could occur this year. Passenger flights are not expected to begin before late 2009 or 2010.
But Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, said that the company would not yet set a date for the startup of commercial flights, which will depend not just on testing and manufacturing but also on government approval. â€œWe donâ€™t want to make promises that we canâ€™t meet,â€ Mr. Whitehorn said. â€œWeâ€™re in a race with nobody, apart from a race with safety.â€
Mr. Rutan said that the new space travel system would have to be â€œhundredsâ€ of times safer than present space flight, which he put at the level of safety of the early commercial aircraft of the 1920s.
â€œDonâ€™t believe anyone who tells you that the safety level of new spaceships will be as safe as the modern airliner,â€ he said, but the risk must nonetheless be brought to an acceptable level for the customers to come.
â€œThis has to be such that the fear of the risk doesnâ€™t hold down the growth of the industry,â€ he said.
Mr. Rutanâ€™s company encountered tragedy last summer when an explosion killed three of Mr. Rutanâ€™s rocketeers. The blast occurred during a â€œcoldâ€ test of the nitrous system.
While the cause of the blast was being investigated to ensure that there was some previously undiscovered risk in the nitrous-based fuel, Mr. Rutan shifted design resources over to the WhiteKnight half of the flying pair. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $25,870 for five violations of regulations for workplace safety.
Today, however, the rocketeers were focused on the future â€” and, just as importantly, on the past.
â€œMost people think of going to space as Saturn V or the Space Shuttle,â€ said Mr. Whitehorn, the company president. But the Rutan model, a descendant of the record-breaking X-15 experimental craft, shows there is another way, he said.
The vehicle is meant to open space to a new generation of spacefarers who are more creative than the classically trained astronauts, Mr. Rutan said. And that will bring with it a new way of looking at space travel, just as personal computing opened up the use of computers from a military and academic tool to something that transformed the world.
These newcomers, he predicted, will bring â€œbreakthroughs that will come, that will tell us why weâ€™re doing this,â€ he said, â€œand what can we do with it.â€
About 100 of the companyâ€™s prospective passengers were on hand at the unveiling in Manhattan Wednesday. Stephen Attenborough, the companyâ€™s liaison with its clients â€” or, as the company calls them, its astronauts â€” said that Virgin Galactic had received 200 firm reservations and $30 million in deposits.
Virgin has tested 80 of those customers for the ability to withstand the high-G forces of space flight by taking them for a centrifuge ride. Of the 80 â€” who included the scientist James Lovelock, who is 88, as well as people who have had heart bypass surgery and limb replacement â€” only two were unable to take the forces; the company asked three customers to put off flying.
Mr. Attenborough said that means the companyâ€™s initial premise â€” that one did not need to be in absolutely top physical shape to go to space â€” is sound.
â€œWeâ€™ve proved that ordinary people can go to space,â€ he said, â€œand almost all of us have the right stuff.â€
A video simulation of a Virgin Galactic trip was also published (complete with rousing techno-beat):
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