With the space race heating up, there are still new companies throwing their hat into the ring. Enter Paul Allen, who made his fortunes by founding Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, a company he remained its chief technologist of until his departure in 1983. These days he is a prolific investor and philanthropist, whose first major public interaction with the space industry was the funding of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which won the coveted Ansari X-Prize competition. Allen’s stamp is clearly all over the company, from it being “A Paul G. Allen Project”, to the quotes you can find back on every single one of the pages on their website, coming out of his book Idea Man. So what is this company all about?
In a nutshell, Stratolaunch Systems was founded in 2011, forming a team between Scaled Composites and Orbital, to build a derivative of SpaceShipTwo’s carrier aircraft, the one used by Richard Branson‘s Virgin Galactic. Based in Huntsvilla, Alabama, the company finished its second hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California earlier this year, and it is there where they will build the next iteration of WhiteKnightTwo on a much larger scale. In fact, its wingspan would be larger than a football field, making it absolutely enormous and by wingspan the largest aircraft to ever fly! It would be able to transport a multi-stage booster – official name: Pegasus II – to high altitude before releasing it, at which point the rocket will continue its journey into orbit prior to delivering its payload. The company doesn’t necessarily qualify yet for what we usually focus on, i.e. human space travel, but with Allen and Rutan at the helm nothing seems impossible. Check out the video below:
“By the end of the decade, Stratolaunch will bring airport-like operations to launch.” While no definitive schedule has been produced yet, Stratolaunch hopes to have their carrier plane ready for test flights by 2017. Not to worry though for frequent visitors to JFK or Heathrow, the plane will be far too big to use the tarmac of any normal airport. Definitely a project to follow though, so stay tuned for more on them as it becomes available.
There would be few who could claim to have never heard of the charismatic billionaire founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson. A dropout at 16, he turned his hand to publishing with the magazine aptly named Student. As if that wasn’t enough, he turned to successfully selling records via mail order, then opening a record store when the postal strike shut down their distribution. Not too long after that he found himself opening a recording studio in a country mansion, and his London shop turned into a national chain through rapid expansion, and so on.
When the first bank asked him what he was going to do when he asked them for that first big £30k loan, they must have thought him a madman for dreaming of an airline, music business, etc. When Branson and his band of cohorts ended up with the name Virgin, as it would be cool to have at least one still in the room if only by name, no one could have imagined (apart from Branson himself of course) what an economic empire this would become years later.
One could argue that Branson was lucky on numerous occassions – from finding Mike Oldfield, who basically bankrolled Virgin Records for quite some time, to surviving his balloon adventure gone pear-shaped. But being that lucky takes hard work! Obviously a cunning communicator and extraordinarily gifted people manager, he also had the guts to put his companies on the line for something or someone he believed in. Rarely do great rewards come without great risks and he seems to have known that since his childhood.
Turn the clock forward a few decades, and while Necker Island might be the envy of men and women everywhere, it is Virgin Group‘s recent acquisition of The Spaceship Company and what that is leading into that’s the really exciting news these days. In partnership with Scaled Composites, the company is building a fleet of ships that will catapult Virgin Galactic into the history books as the first operational spaceline, possibly already at the end of 2013. Life just doesn’t get much cooler than that…
The launch vehicle that Virgin Galactic will be using as part of its two-stage approach to sub-orbital spaceflight is the WhiteKnightTwo (also known as WK2), with the first one christened VMS Eve after Richard Branson‘s mother and the second one will be named after Steve Fossett, that other adventurer who sadly had a less than fortunate encounter with fate in 2007.
Developed by Scaled Composites under the umbrella of The Spaceship Company, the first WhiteKnightTwo was revealed to the public for the first time in July 2008 and the prototype has since made over 100 test flights. As a design, it is hard to miss. WhiteKnightTwo features a unique twin fuselage ‘catamaran’ design with an unswept single piece wing. This catamaran airframe configuration allows for flexible payload placement and configuration.
For the full technical specifications, you can download the pdf here. It is a true aviation milestone: the largest all carbon composite aviation vehicle ever built with an amazing 140 ft wing span, capable of carrying heavy payloads (up to around 16 tons) to high altitudes (around 50,000 ft, or over 15 km). Putting that in perspective, that payload is about equal to what an Arianne 5 rocket can launch into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
Tracing back the technology used by Virgin Galactic, we have to check in with Scaled Composites, the company founded by Burt Rutan. As you can tell by this video they know how to not take everything too seriously but make no mistake, this team is working on cutting edge technology to get commercial spaceflight off the ground. In 2005, Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan announced their signing of an agreement to form The Spaceship Company (TSC) – a new aerospace production company to build a fleet of commercial sub-orbital spaceships and carrier aircraft.
The latest results of that are WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo (featured together in the picture above), the former (WK2) being the carrier aircraft and the latter (SS2) being the manned sub-orbital spacecraft that will fulfil the dreams of those lucky 500+ people who had the funding and the guts to sign up to go where few have gone before.
In October 2012, Virgin Galactic acquired full ownership of The Spaceship Company which marked the successful completion of a long-term strategy for The Spaceship Company, in that they by then had built out the manufacturing and assembly facilities, and had the necessary workforce and assets in place to start building Virgin Galactic‘s commercial fleet. While the first WhiteKnightTwo was christened VMS Eve after Richard Branson‘s mother, the Virgin Galactic spaceline plans to operate a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes for commercial spaceflight starting from 2014 although it would be good to note that this day moved back several times already.