Virgin Galactic, according to the company’s Web site, is an “airline offering suborbital spaceflights,” or flights into space with a reusable spacecraft. The Virgin Galactic vehicle is capable of carrying passengers into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). While in LEO, passengers gain a taste of what it is like to be free of Earth’s gravity, after which the craft descends, once again falling victim to Earth’s gravitational pull, and glides back to the spaceport.
The LEO vehicles, creatively named SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, are launched off the back of carrier planes called WhiteKnightOne and WhiteKnightTwo, respectively. When the vehicles have gained sufficient altitude, the two craft separate–with the launch vehicle descending safely back to Earth. Once enough distance between the two craft is achieved, the spacecraft engages its propulsion system, fueled by a hybrid rocket motor that burns hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) with nitrous oxide (N2O). This system provides enough thrust to break free of Earth’s gravity for a few moments.
In July 2008, WhiteKnightTwo was completed by Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, which was founded in April 1982 by the Estacada, Oregon native. WhiteKnightTwo is reportedly the largest, all-carbon composite aviation vehicle and is the most fuel-efficient vehicle for its size. WhiteKnightTwo was christened Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) “Eve” by Richard Branson’s mother, Eve Branson. The unique vehicle design enables “Eve” to carry heavy payloads, such as spaceships, and to execute high-G maneuvers, making it well suited for training would-be astronauts. In December 2008, VMS Eve embarked on a flawless maiden voyage into clear, Mojave, morning skies.
Just one year later, on 7 December 2009, Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan unveiled Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, attached to VMS Eve amidst a spectacular light and music show. At the naming ceremony–performed by Holly Branson, Sir Richard Branson’s daughter, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson–it was dubbed “Virgin Spaceship Enterprise” and became “the world’s first commercial manned spacecraft.”
Virgin Galactic boasts more than 380 confirmed future astronauts and a list of people vying for a seat on one of these rides; at $200,000 a ticket, space travel will remain just a dream for most of us. This geek said it once and he will say it again: I cannot wait for the day when I can visit the spectacular space above, or take a trip to the moon or beyond!