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Branson Unveils SpaceShipTwo, Sees ‘Thousands’ Venturing Into Space

By | January 28, 2008

      Billionaire space buff investor Richard Branson unveiled a new commercial spacecraft system, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, predicting that "thousands" of people will be able to realize their dream of venturing into space.

      Branson spoke confidently of "the thousands who will travel with us" to the final frontier.

      He also predicted that the new spaceship family could raise the curtain on the next gold-rush boom industry, with space travel being a successor to the craze, the Internet, cell phones and more.

      "I think it’s very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," Branson said. "If we do, I believe we’ll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

      Space travel will be about far more than high-flying high rollers living out fantasies of cosmic vacations, according to Branson. Rather, space travel is vital to helping to preserve an overpopulated, overpolluted planet Earth, he said.

      "Our population is now heading to 9 billion people by the middle of this century — that’s three times more than when I was born," said Branson, age 57. He pointed to predictions by some that world oil supplies are going to run low, while global temperatures are running high to cause ice caps to melt.

      "With the end of the oil era approaching, and climate change progressing faster than most models have been predicting, the utilization of space is essential not only for communications but also for the logistics of survival through things such as weather satellites, agricultural monitoring, GPS and climate science," Branson said.

      "I also believe that someday we will be able to use space as a source of energy for the planet, through solar power satellites, using the most sustainable source available – our sun."

      There, he referred to space-based solar power, in which satellites would collect solar power and beam it down to Earth to be converted into electricity, providing a cheap, inexhaustible and non-polluting source of limitless power for even the poorest nations.

      Another heat-generating, climate-changing function now performed on Earth could be done as well in space, affording major environmental payoffs, Branson indicated.

      "The explosive growth of the internet has resulted in a world in which we have nearly a half a billion servers, each one consuming hundreds of watts," Branson noted. "Industries like this would benefit enormously from the ability to launch low Earth orbit satellites that could literally take some of the heat out of the planet, for example, by serving someday as the repository of our information technology," he said.

      Branson, funding source for the new spaceships development project, congratulated space pioneer Burt Rutan for designing the ships that Branson said "will allow thousands of people to realize their dreams and that will act as a catalyst to transform human access to space."

      The new spacecraft system involves the WhiteKnightTwo mothership that carries the SpaceShipTwo spaceship to a high altitude before it is released to soar to near space. WhiteKnight has two fuselages, each with a tail assembly, to form a mothership powered by four jet engines. The fuselages are connected by a single wing.

      Between the fuselages, slung from the wing, is SpaceShipTwo, which will carry six passengers and two pilots into orbit.

      Passengers might fork over $200,000 for the ride, which is much shorter but also is much cheaper than the $20 million that some space tourists have shelled out to have a Russian Soyuz spaceship carry them to the International Space Station for a stay of several days.

      Beyond space tourism and logistics cargo missions, however, Branson said the new spaceship family will have workhorse applications as well.

      "The fact that this system will have the capability to launch small payloads and satellites at low cost is hugely important," he said. For scientists and others, "this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth’s climate and the mysteries of the universe.

      "And for applied research, it is currently just too expensive to be able to do most of the things in space from which industries like biotechnology could really benefit. The beauty of [the spacecraft system he unveiled] is that they can help change the paradigm of our relationship to space, achieving an era where space accessibility becomes a commercial and scientific norm.

      Another potential application of this low-cost form of space travel is that it could someday form a high-speed means of commercial airline travel for ordinary travelers, said Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways.

      "The other thing that I really admire about the [new Rutan-designed spaceship] system is that it has the architecture that could someday … be developed into a passenger- carrying vehicle, able to take people from A to B around the planet, outside of the atmosphere," Branson said.

      "That may not happen for some time, but the first generation of space tourists, many of whom are with us today, will be paving the way as they marvel at the beauty of our planet and experience the freedom of weightlessness and the blackness of space."

      Construction of White Knight is now very close to completion at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., Rutan’s company.

      WhiteKnight is expected to begin flight testing in the summer.

      It is the world’s largest, all carbon composite aircraft; it has a unique high altitude lift capacity, capable of launching SpaceShipTwo and its eight astronauts into sub- orbital space flight. The mothership is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, which are among the most powerful, economic and efficient engines available, according to Virgin Galactic, Branson’s firm.

      WhiteKnight also is designed to lift other types of payload, launching it into space.

      Branson’s talk of thousands of space tourists may not be all that wildly optimistic. While the two vehicles comprising the space launch system have been under construction, Virgin Galactic reports the number of people ready to fly has grown to well in excess of 200 individuals, with around 85,000 registrations of interest to fly.

      Astronaut orientation for spaceflight is progressing well and already 80 of SpaceShipTwo’s first passengers have been through medical assessment and centrifuge training at a facility in Philadelphia.

      Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites, said: "Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world’s first private human and payload space launch system. This required us to produce a safe but flexible design capable of multiple applications in new market sectors. I am confident that these vehicles, now in an advanced stage of construction, will achieve just that. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the whole team at Scaled Composites."

      Branson said he is "delighted with the wonderful vision that Foster and Partners, working with URS, have shown in the final designs for Spaceport America in New Mexico."

      He added that "we are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."

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