SpaceShipTwo in test flight phase

  • 18-Apr-2013 11:40 EDT
George Widesides at 2013 World Congress.JPG

Virgin Galactic's George Whitesides showed video of SS2's latest test flight to an SAE 2013 World Congress audience.  

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is on track to be the world’s first passenger-carrying suborbital commercial space vehicle.

“In the last 50 years since the dawn of human space flight, 528 people have been to space,” George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, said during an SAE 2013 World Congress keynote speech in the AVL theater April 17.

So far, 580 have signed up and put money down for a ride aboard the SS2, "and that's more than the number of people who have ever flown in space," said Whitesides.

In late 2013 or early 2014, the SS2 is likely to transport six passengers and two pilots into space. “We think we have a good shot at meeting that time frame,” Whitesides, a former Chief of Staff at NASA, said in an interview with SAE Magazines.

Virgin Galactic’s 250 engineers and technicians as well as an equal number of contracted engineers and technicians are the space vehicle’s development nucleus. The team is drastically smaller than NASA’s Apollo team, which “had about a half million people dedicated to the construction of one vehicle,” Whitesides said.

SS2 is midway through its test phase with the latest milestone occurring April 12. “Friday’s test showed that we could do everything except flame the motor. We’re now getting ready for our first rocket-powered flight,” Whitesides said.

The space vehicle’s use of carbon composites is a record-breaker. “It’s actually the largest all-carbon fiber vehicle in the world. It has a 140-ft wing-spar. And just to give you a sense of comparison, the Boeing 787 (is comprised of) 50% carbon fiber,” he said.

Bob Glaspie, one of the few Virgin Galactic engineers with an automotive background, said in an interview with SAE Magazines that SS2’s first-generation seats are “capable of doing things that really no other seat in any vehicle can do. We’re definitely breaking new ground.” Whitesides said the seats are an example of “fantastic technology because the seats need to provide multiple different configurations, depending on the phase of the flight.”

The spaceship’s engine, RocketMotorTwo (RM2), can develop approximately 60,000 lb of thrust, which means that SS2’s $200,000 per person ride will be dramatically different from today’s commercial jetliner.

“I think it’s crazy that 50 years after the dawn of the jet age we’re still going Mach 0.8,” said Whitesides, adding, “We’ll be testing all the technologies (including reusable rocket technology, high-temperature thermoplastics, thermal protection systems, and avionics) that you would need for high speed (travel) on SpaceShipTwo,” Whitesides said.

When commercial flights on SS2 begin, passengers will experience a 2.5-h flight from takeoff to landing.

SS2’s release from its carrier vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo, will occur around 52,000 ft. According to Whitesides, passengers will then feel about 2 s of weightlessness before the rocket motor kicks in “and you’ll feel 3.5 g's on your back. The vehicle then executes a gamma turn, heading to a straight vertical at Mach 3.” Next, the rocket burns for about 65 s before shutting off. At this point, passengers can release their seatbelts and float around the cabin in zero gravity.

The space odyssey concludes with the SS2 gliding to a runway landing in southern New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic has its Spaceport America, a purpose-built $200 million commercial operations facility.

Whitesides said the SS2 project will essentially create a “near-mass market for space experiences. And that’s tremendously important because we think it’s a pathway for the broader adoption of space technologies and wider use of space technologies.”

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