As the age of the space shuttles draws to a conclusion and we await NASA's next generation of crew lift vehicles, space enthusiasts are turning their attention toward private space companies like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Just how close are we to regular tourist flights into space? I caught up with the company's CEO, George Whitesides, to get the latest scoop on the status of Virgin Galactic's test flight program and to see if I could get him to reveal the passenger list for the first paying flight.
In 2007, when you became an advisor at Virgin Galactic, the press announcement said you might have commercial flights as early as 2009. In September of 2010, Sir Richard Branson said that you were perhaps 18 months away from bringing passengers into space. Where do you stand today, and what are the major hurdles left to overcome?
We're getting closer. I don't give a public time frame, as you probably have seen, just because we're in the middle of a development program and, you know, we think we're getting very close. We think we'll be doing space flights next year, but what we're doing is hard, and the most important thing is doing it safely. So, none of us are going to rush this if we have any concerns. What we're doing is proceeding, I think, pretty fast, but still cautiously through our test flight program because, at the end of the day, we need to have a vehicle that's safe.
So, where are we? I identify four major milestones as part of the test flight program, and we've completed two of those. The four major milestones -- I don't know if you're familiar with our launch architecture -- is first, a glide flight of SpaceShip Two, and now we've done several of them. Then, the second one is the first feathered flight of SpaceShip Two where we actually reconfigure the vehicle into feather and back which we've also done. Now we've done two of those.
The next milestone is integration of the rocket motor and first powered flight basically, which will be a short burn, but it actually may get up to supersonic at that first burn.
What sort of altitude would you be looking at for that rocket burn flight?
Well, altitude is less important than getting through trans-sonic, so we'll drop from 50,000 feet as we always do and, you know, you go a few tens of thousands of feet. I actually don't know the numbers off the top of my head, but it's a relatively short burn. As you probably know, we need a burn of about 60 seconds to get into space, but for our first burn, we'll probably be on the order of 10 seconds or 15 seconds, something like that. We'll probably go supersonic with that flight, although it might be the second flight or something. You know, the engineers will have to tell me. I'm speaking broadly right now. The next step will be the integration of the rocket motor and the first powered flight, then the fourth one, obviously will be the first test flight into space. There are different definitions of whatever that altitude is, but you know, first getting into space with the vehicle will be the last major milestone.
Then, what we'll do is keep flying the vehicle into space a number of times, until we get a sense of how this vehicle performs in an ongoing operational basis. As with any test flight program, we'll try to explore the aerodynamic boundary of the vehicle in a spaceflight trajectory. Then, in sort of parallel with those final phases, we'll be applying for the FAA commercial license which is what we need. We're regulated by the space transportation side of the FAA. We'll need to do that, and set up operations down at Space Port New Mexico, and when we've done that, we'll be ready to go.
When that is is something that we haven't publicly disclosed, but I think the general time frames that Richard [Branson] has been talking about are probably accurate.
You have about 425 people, probably more than that by now, who have already signed up. Obviously, that's many, many flights worth of passengers. Have you decided on a passenger list for the first flight?
Ha! That's a good question. Basically, yes. The first commercial flight will be Richard himself, as well as members of his family, as you have seen, and then potentially, Burt Rutan. Depending upon who exactly goes, in his family, that will be a full flight. So that's who's on the first flight.
In terms of non-connected, paying customers, have you set that list yet?
Oh, definitely not. I don't know if you're familiar with how we work, but what we have is a group of initial customers that are called The Founders. That's essentially the first 100 people to put down full deposits. We're developing a process through which we would allocate the flight manifests for those first 100, but we have not finalized that and we, obviously, have not publicly announced yet who is on those flights.
Beyond Virgin Galactic's current endeavor to carry passengers to the edge of space, do you have other long range goals that the company is pursuing?
Well, the way I would phrase it is that I think we do have other dreams, you know. It's important to have dreams, and certainly Richard, as our sort of guiding light, emphasizes the importance of having visions of the future and what we might do. I think what I would say is that we're focused on running a safe and profitable space business by using sub-orbital vehicles. We're going to start there, and if we can get that going, then the sky's the limit on other stuff. That's how I would phrase it.
Each SpaceShip Two will carry six passengers and two crew members. Virgin Galactic expects to get all 100 Founders and 350 to 400 Pioneers (a second level of preferred reservation) onto flights in their first year of operation. SpaceShip Two vehicles are carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a White Knight Two aircraft where they are released. The Virgin Galactic suborbital vehicle will then burn a rocket motor for approximately 60 seconds to reach the edge of space where passengers will experience weightlessness before the craft glides back down to earth for a runway landing.
Brad Sylvester writes about the space program for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Watching the Apollo missions through the static on a small black and white television sparked a lifelong interest in the space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe.
- space shuttles