WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rollout of Scaled Composites' mega-mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, is anticipated late July in Mojave, California — the first phase of a project to create a private space travel business — SPACE.com has learned in an exclusive interview.
WhiteKnightTwo is a specially designed jet carrier aircraft, built to haul the passenger and crew-filled SpaceShipTwo to release altitude of roughly 50,000 feet.
Once on its own, SpaceShipTwo guns itself on a suborbital trek to over 68 miles high, reaching a speed of just over three times the speed of sound, and then returns its six rubber-necking tourists and two pilots back to Earth.
And even in space, yes, you can hear cash registers ringing up sales.
That's the word from Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the company owned and established by British businessman and billionaire, Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, to fashion the world's first commercial spaceline.
"I think we are above the plan we originally had in terms of the number of tickets we sold before we started flying," Whitehorn told SPACE.com in an exclusive May 29 interview here during the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference.
Some 254 people have plopped down cash to earn priority seating onboard SpaceShipTwo in the first couple of years of suborbital flying, Whitehorn explained. "They've paid up-front between $20,000 and $200,000 ... and we've got about $36 million, as of today, in the bank."
Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic's ambition since day one has been to sell the first year's operations before firing the starting gun on ticketed runs to space. While that date is still to be determined, he said that the firm would want to sell about 500 or 600 tickets before then.
"We see ourselves carrying that many people in the first year," Whitehorn said. "Virgin isn't going to fund a business that isn't a real business."
But the true foundation for closing Virgin Galactic's public space travel business case is test, test and then test some more.
Extensive flight testing
"We've designed a test program at the moment which is incredibly conservative," Whitehorn advised — a program that he thinks might be shortened. "We're into sort of a 130 to 150 flight category program, which is extensive."
That test program starts with rollout of the huge WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, now targeted for the end of July. The aircraft will be ground tested for days or weeks at the Mojave Air and Space Port, depending on the opinion of Scaled Composites experts, Whitehorn emphasized, but the hope is to have the plane airborne by September.
Scaled Composites founder, Burt Rutan, has led his company team in shaping the suborbital space travel hardware, and was recently named Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of the company.
SpaceShipTwo will still be under shrouds next month, Whitehorn added, before it is publicly unveiled in the early part of next year.
"The business plan would obviously love us to start flying as soon as possible. The safety plan may well agree with that at the end of the day ... but it may not," Whitehorn suggested.
The beast that is WhiteKnightTwo has its work cut out for it ... and then some.
Virgin Galactic officials — including its cadre of sales agents — have proven that there is a suborbital market that could justify building the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system. That fact was not known at start of construction, Whitehorn admitted.
Still, there's more business oomph in WhiteKnightTwo than handling passenger traffic on suborbital jaunts.
"WhiteKnightTwo is the world's most advanced payload carrier. It has the best fuel efficiency of any aircraft ever built in history. It is the world's first 100% carbon composite aircraft ... 100% minus the blades and undercarriage," Whitehorn pointed out. "Even the control wires are carbon composite ... a first in aviation ... and a patented technology."
A look at WhiteKnightTwo artwork shows the "open architecture" of the twin booms on the craft. Within that open space, a multi-purpose range of payloads can be cradled under the aircraft.
"WhiteKnightTwo has got incredible abilities," Whitehorn emphasized. For one, serving as a high-altitude launch platform, the aircraft can toss microsatellites into low Earth orbit.
Another idea that is bubbling up for study is whether the aircraft can act as a forest fire water bomber. A massive carbon composite water tank can be hauled by WhiteKnightTwo, one that can be quickly replenished to make repeat runs over rampaging fires.
"It is also a zero-g aircraft so we can train our passengers in it. It can also do microgravity science flights, high-altitude testing, and it can launch payloads ... other than SpaceShipTwo," Whitehorn said. "My background in aviation told me, right from the early days, that if we just give WhiteKnightTwo a single purpose, then it's less likely to be profitable in the future."
Margin of error
If all goes according to plan, WhiteKnightTwo should be in the air by early September. "We've got to take it to the limit of its operating ceiling and test it up there before we under-sling anything under it," Whitehorn noted.
One of the biggest issues with any aviation or space project – when you are developing something at the cutting edge of technology — is typically weight, Whitehorn said. And at this moment, there is the capacity to cope with growth of weight in what Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites is doing ... because of WhiteKnightTwo.
"That is the thing that gives me the most comfort that we're going to achieve 'commercialality' with it. Because, if we had no room for margin of error on weight now, we'd be in, I think, a difficult place," Whitehorn pointed out. "But we've got lots of room for margin of error."