Space Tourism: The SpaceShipTwo Class and V.S.S. Enterprise
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Space Tourism: The SpaceShipTwo Class and V.S.S. Enterprise

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise will continue Scaled Composites' domination of civilian spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has commissioned them to build spacecraft which will ferry paying customers to space.

When the Ansari X-Prize contest was created by Dr. Peter Diamandas, he envisioned a flurry of enthusiasm toward commercial space travel the way that Lindbergh's historic flight inspired civilian airplane travel. Even before the X-Prize had been won, his dream was realized. 26 teams from seven different countries formed together to compete for the X-Prize, and some continued forward with their plans even after Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites captured the money and the record. But with Rutan's victory came recognition and sponsorship in the form of Virgin Galactic, a new branch of Richard Branson's Virgin Enterprises which placed a contract order for five spacecraft of the SpaceShipTwo class.

SpaceShipTwo will operate in exactly the same manner as SpaceShipOne. It will be lifted up by a White Knight carrier aircraft and then dropped. Its rocket engine will then fire for just over a minute, and then it will coast up to its maximum altitude of 110 kilometers, which is approximately the altitude reached by the X-Prize winning flight by Brian Binnie. SpaceShipTwo class ships also feature the "feathered tail" re-entry design, which SpaceShipOne used as a sort of parachute-style air brake to slow the spacecraft's speed down upon re-entry. Essentially, the entire tail section folds up at a 90-degree angle from the cabin and thus greatly increases the drag of the craft. The lower speeds of this style of spacecraft (versus something such as the Space Shuttle) means that the re-entry procedure does not produce near the amount of stress on the airframe (or spaceframe if you prefer) of shuttle re-entries that usually occur at around 20,000 miles per hour.

There are some noticeable differences between the two systems of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, despite their identical function. Most of the apparent aesthetic differences occur when comparing the two carrier aircraft. Although both feature a twin boom design, White Knight features a central cockpit which loomed to the top and in front of SpaceShipOne, whereas White Knight Two features one cockpit section per boom, with SpaceShipTwo appearing directly at the center of the cockpits. The shape of the cockpits between the two generations is different; while WK and SS1 featured teardrop shapes, WK2 and SS2 feature more traditional bubble-top cockpits with an angular sloping nose. Also different is that White Knight only featured two J-85-GE-5 afterburning engines, whereas White Knight Two features four Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308 turbofan engines. The difference is remarkable: White Knight's engines put out a total of 15,422 lbf of thrust, while White Knight Two's engines put forth 27,616 lbf of thrust.

One fascinating piece of design in both generations of carriers and spaceships is that the carriers are designed to be utilized as training simulators for the rocket aircraft, because they are manufactured with identical avionics. Therefore, test flights for the White Knight aircraft also double as training runs for SpaceShipTwo. The added thrust capability is necessary in order to haul the heavier SpaceShipTwo craft up to the required release altitude. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers, a pilot and a copilot, so it is an appreciably larger spacecraft than its older sibling.Virgin Galactic has ordered three White Knight Two carrier aircraft and five SpaceShipTwo-class spaceships from scaled deposits. The first was off the production line and conducted testing through 2008 and 2009, and the first SpaceShipTwo was christened the VSS Enterprise (Virgin Space Ship). Popular science fiction icon William Shatner, who formerly played James T. Kirk in the Star Trek series, was offered a complimentary flight by Virgin, but felt that he would like to see if the flights go well before taking the risk. Testing logs are available here: The last test recorded was on January 28 of this year.

There has been a buzz of enthusiasm about Virgin Galactic and its space program, which is in testing phases currently and expects to be offering spaceflight service sometime in 2011. Virgin plans to offer 50,000 flights within the first ten years of offering service. Flights have started at $200,000 per seat, but costs may be reduced once the company achieves considerable profit from the enterprise. At least 300 have booked seats for future flights, while over 85,000 have expressed an interest at becoming a Virgin astronaut. Some medical testing and g-force preparation is involved to ensure that passengers are ready for the flights. With a successful flight, passengers receive their astronaut wings as certification of their flight. If you have a lot of extra money and an enthusiasm for space, then Virgin Galactic is your ticket out of this world!


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