Virgin Galactic will Fly in 18 Months

In September 2010, Virgin Atlantic announced its intention to begin redeeming tickets on commercial space flights within the next 18 months – roughly, by some time in early 2012. Many passionate watchers of manned space travel have been waiting in excitement for years for commercial flights to become available, and now – for those with sufficient cash – it seems the dream is finally coming true.

There are currently several private space flight projects underway, but the one which now is poised on the verge of success is Virgin Galactic, owned by billionaire Richard Branson. Virgin has already been experimenting for several years in the development of suborbital and then orbital spacecraft, all of them based on the spaceplane model – in which a recoverable spacecraft is launched from an aircraft at altitude, reaches space, and then lands like an airplane so that it can be recovered and launched again. Essentially, this is the same model used for the American Space Shuttle (except that the latter launches itself from the ground), but commercial spaceplanes are planned to be much smaller and cheaper than the Shuttle.

Until the advent of such private space missions, the only way for a private individual to enter space was to pay their way onto a Russian Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station. These individuals undergo Russian astronaut training and send substantial periods of time on the space station – but the price tag is prohibitively steep, at about $25-30 million US. In contrast, the first flights by Branson’s Virgin Galactic will only bring tourists into space for a few minutes at a time, but a flight onboard one of its “SpaceShipTwo” planes will only cost a comparatively light $200,000 US.

The Virgin system uses entirely custom-built aircraft and space planes. A carrier vehicle or “mothership,” White Knight 2, is a twin-bodied aircraft which brings Spaceshiptwo (named in honour of its experimental predecessor, SpaceShipOne) into the upper atmosphere, with the spacecraft safely cradled between the two bodies of the jet (which essentially resembles a flying catamaran without Spaceshiptwo, or a trimaran with the spacecraft). SpaceShipTwo will carry up to six passengers, along with its crew of two pilots; after release from the airplane, it accelerates up to 2600 miles per hour with its onboard rocket motor and ascends to 112 kilometres (about 70 miles), just above the somewhat arbitrary Karman Line (62 miles) which marks the theoretical edge between the atmosphere and outer space. The spacecraft will then make a gliding descent and land at its spaceport. No special reentry technology is necessary because, unlike the Space Shuttle, it never travels at more than a fraction of full orbital velocity. Currently, Branson plans to use the Mojave Airport in California for these flights, and passengers will spend a total of about two and a half hours in the air.