Virgin Galactic readies for Monday's unveiling of SpaceShipTwo — the first-class space tourist's wonder machine at the core of the space tourism firm's suborbital fleet.
The scene is spacecraft manufacturer Scaled Composites at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. No doubt, there's plenty of pomp and circumstance that's due this debut — although specific aspects about the rocket plane's rollout remain under wraps.
SpaceShipTwo is a carbon composite cousin in construction and design to SpaceShipOne — the privately financed, single-piloted spacecraft that bagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse by flying back-to-back treks to suborbital space in 2004.
That "Tier One" project was under the wing of veteran aerospace designer Burt Rutan, along with his team at Scaled Composites, and funded by greenbacks from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Over $100 million in cold cash was doled out in hot pursuit of the prize.
Fast forward to the present
SpaceShipTwo is a six-passenger, two-pilot affair. But this time, the endeavor is backed by British billionaire and knighted adventurer Sir Richard Branson.
Never short on entrepreneurial chutzpa, Branson created Virgin Galactic, a firm keen on cornering the public-travel-to-outer-space market — first to suborbital heights and then, given a follow-on spaceship design, onward to orbital jaunts.
The suborbital SpaceShipTwo is powered by a hybrid rocket motor, with strap-in accommodations going for $200,000 a seat. Some 250 Virgin Galactic astronauts-in-training have already reserved tickets, according to the group's website.
The airliner-sized White Knight Two — painted in the livery of Virgin Galactic and dubbed VMS Eve — has also been built under contract by Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic and will serve as the high-altitude mothership - not only for deploying the passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo but also for lobbing satellites into low Earth orbit.
Branson's Virgin Galactic is establishing its headquarters to operate private space flights from Spaceport America, billed as the world's first "purpose built" commercial spaceport which is now under construction outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
"Everyone at Scaled is looking forward to the Virgin Galactic 'unveil event' on December 7," said Rutan, who founded Scaled Composites and now serves as the firm's chief technology officer and chairman emeritus.
Rutan is quick to offer a tip of his draftsman hat to the developers of Scaled Composites Commercial Suborbital Space System: Designers Jim Tighe, Bob Morgan, Matt Stinemetze, and Marc Zeitlin, along with their design and assembly teams "that have worked long and hard for this milestone," he told SPACE.com.
"They look forward to seeing SpaceShipTwo join WhiteKnightTwo in the air over Mojave Spaceport as it conducts the critical flight tests under the direction of Flight Test Operations Chief Pete Siebold," Rutan explained.
"Scaled is proud indeed to be growing during the recession and to be making history again by developing the world's first manned spaceflight systems intended to fly the public," Rutan added.
Utilize space forever
Also hungry to see SpaceShipTwo's rollout and a successful shakedown of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo is Steve Landeene, Executive Director of New Mexico's Spaceport America — the home launch site for Virgin Galactic's commercial operations.
"The rollout symbolizes the reality of commercial space and the next era of space exploration, experimentation, and transportation," said Steve Landeene, executive director of Spaceport America.
From Landeene's front-row view, Virgin Galactic's flight test program and Spaceport America's construction are running in parallel. In his estimation, that matching up of events "will culminate in what promises to change the world and how we access and utilize space forever."
As captured in a 2005 Memorandum of Agreement, Landeene said, the vision of Richard Branson and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is now becoming real.
New paradigm in space access?
"Spaceport America is rapidly becoming reality in concert with Virgin Galactic's flight test program," Landeene said. As evidence, the 10,000-foot-long by 200-foot-wide concrete runway is to be finished by the summer of 2010 and ready for action. By the way, that runway apron is capable of taking on the landing of nearly any aircraft in the world.
Also, the contract to build Spaceport America's Terminal/Hangar Facility that will house the operational offices of Virgin Galactic's world headquarters has recently been awarded. That structure is projected to be complete by early 2011.
"This is bigger than space tourism," added Landeene. "It is about the industrialization of space through development of unique and innovative ways to access space."
Landeene's bottom line for next week's Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rollout: "It represents a huge milestone in the reality of a whole new paradigm in space access."