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Branson in SS2 cabin
Richard Branson gives the SpaceShipTwo cabin mockup two thumbs up after a press conference where the cabin model was unveiled. (credit: J. Foust)

A sneak peek inside SpaceShipTwo

Last week was a fairly busy week for the entrepreneurial space, or “NewSpace” industry. On Monday UP Aerospace conducted the first suborbital launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico; the rocket, unfortunately, malfunctioned and fell far short of its altitude goal. That same day Orbital Sciences Corporation announced it was parting ways with Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) on the development of RpK’s K-1 vehicle under NASA’s COTS demonstration effort. By Thursday, though, RpK had lined up a new partner, Andrews Space, one of the runners up in the COTS competition. That same day Jim Benson announced he was leaving the company he founded about a decade ago, SpaceDev, to start a new company, Benson Space Company, which will offer suborbital and orbital space tourism services using vehicles to be developed by SpaceDev.

However, most of the attention accorded to NewSpace last week went instead to Virgin Galactic. That company has emerged as the preeminent, or at least best known, venture in the emerging commercial suborbital passenger spaceflight sector, thanks primarily to the technical expertise of Virgin’s partner, Scaled Composites, and the financial backing—and penchant for publicity—provided by the Virgin Group and its billionaire founder, Richard Branson. (As an article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker about the social scene in Manhattan put it, “Alyssa Milano stands ignored at the Sheraton while, nearby, the space-tourism entrepreneur Richard Branson is trailed by groupies.”) The combination of marketing flair and secrecy surrounding the technical details of Virgin Galactic’s developments ensured that there would be plenty of interest in a company press conference, even at seven o’clock on a Thursday morning.

The cabin, developed by the British design form Seymour Powell, has a look that might be considered both futuristic and retro: how the past envisioned what the future—now the present—would be like.

That press conference, held just before the opening of Wired magazine’s NextFest—a public expo featuring dancing robots, video games controlled by body motions alone, and designs for future spacesuits—at the Javits Center in New York, had a mix of style and substance. Yes, there was a sound-and-light show, and a new computer animation showing the flight of SpaceShipTwo (SS2), while warning that the depiction of the spacecraft in the video was conceptual only. However, Virgin Galactic also showed off a detailed design for the cabin of their planned suborbital spacecraft, and shared some new details about both its development and how it fits into a grander scheme.

The cabin takes shape

While some accounts prior to the press conference had billed the event as the unveiling of a full-scale mockup of SS2 itself, the focus of the event was instead on a specific component of the vehicle. So, when Branson somewhat awkwardly pulled down a curtain about ten minutes into the press conference, what people saw was a full-scale mockup of SpaceShipOne, hanging from the ceiling. Below that, at the same scale, was a two-dimensional illustration of what SpaceShipTwo might look like. Embedded within that backdrop was the real star of the show: the full-scale, three-dimensional model of the SpaceShipTwo cabin.

The cabin, developed by the British design form Seymour Powell, has a look that might be considered both futuristic and retro: how the past envisioned what the future—now the present—would be like. The nearly all-white interior and curved seats gave it an appearance that would not have been out of place on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Aesthetics aside, the key feature of the cabin interior was the form-fitting seats. The six seats in the passenger cabin, arranged in three rows of two each, start off in the upright position so that they can properly cushion passengers from the g-loads during launch. Once the engine cuts out, though, the seats retract to a horizontal position. This gives the passengers more room to move around the cabin in weightlessness, and also puts them in the proper position for reentry, when the g-loads will be coming in a different direction from launch.

In the animation depicting the flight, passengers are seen wearing full-body suits with helmets (whose visors are mirrored so we never see their faces). Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said, though, that the company hasn’t made a decision whether or not passengers will wear pressure suits—which typically have been bulky and expensive—or if they will be able to fly in a shirtsleeve environment like that on SS1. “We don’t believe that [cabin] depressurization is an issue that we have to deal with,” he said. “However, it may well be that there is an advantage of having a passive pressure suit anyway” that would protect passengers from injuries that might be incurred from bumping into things—or each other—in zero-g. He added that they are currently looking at three different suits and will make a final decision on what suit to use, if any, during the flight test program.

“We’re doing a number of things on the democratization of spaceflight,” Whitehorn said. “It’s one of the things that Richard said right at the beginning, that he didn’t want to build an elitist product.”

One decision that has been made, though, is to allow people to float freely in the cabin during the zero-g phase of the flight. As recently as at the ISDC in Los Angeles in May, company officials said they were looking into tethers that would retract people back into their seats before the onset of gravity. That appears unnecessary now, said Whitehorn, since the gradual buildup of g-forces at reentry will give people plenty of time to get to their seats. “We designed the seating arrangement so that so that you will be able to get back into you seats, and you’ll have about 40 seconds to do it,” he said. In the worst-case scenario, he added, passengers unable to get back to their seats could simply lie on the floor and be “perfectly safe”. Virgin has already been testing seat designs on some zero-g airplane flights.

Democratizing access to space

Who, though, is going to be flying in the real SS2 cabin when it begins commercial flights? Virgin Galactic has, in the near term, been focusing on what it calls the “Founders”, its group of the first 100 customers who have paid their full $200,000 ticket price up front. With the Founders group now filled up, Virgin is now promoting two other groups of passengers: Pioneers and Voyagers. The Pioneers will be the next 400 passengers, paying a deposit of between $100,000 and $175,000, while the Voyagers will follow the Pioneers, putting down a deposit of 10 percent of the ticket price, or no more than about $20,000.

For many, if not most, people, though, even a $20,000 deposit, let alone the full $200,000 ticket price, is still out of reach. Virgin Galactic officials say they are aware of the need to offer additional avenues for potential customers without huge bank accounts to fly into space. “We’re doing a number of things on the democratization of spaceflight,” Whitehorn said. “It’s one of the things that Richard said right at the beginning, that he didn’t want to build an elitist product.”

One approach is to allow people to redeem frequent flyer miles. Last December Richard Branson announced that members of Virgin Atlantic Airways frequent flyer program, Flyers Club, could redeem their miles for a Virgin Galactic trip: two million miles for a free flight into space. At Thursday’s press conference Virgin Galactic introduced the first person to take them up on the offer: Alan Watts, a soft-spoken 51-year-old managing director of a British electrical engineering firm. Stephen Attenborough, director of astronaut relations for Virgin Galactic, said that the company was looking at additional cash-and-miles options so that people with fewer than two million miles could get a discounted ticket.

Whitehorn said that Virgin Galactic was also in the process of developing a reality TV show for potential contestants, and was in negotiations with various international TV networks, including the BBC and ITN in the UK, about it. “Basically, it will be a cross between Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Krypton Factor,” he said, the last a reference to a classic British game show where contestants faced a series of mental and physical challenges. (He added that a similar show concept, but designed to recruit pilots, was also under development.) Another option for broader public participation is with lotteries. “Lottery concepts are very, very interesting,” he said, adding that right now they’re researching concepts that would be legal in the US and other countries.

These efforts to reach out to a broader audience would not be meaningful if stringent physical requirements limit the number of people who can fly regardless of the size of their bank account. Attenborough said, though, that early indications are that most people who are interested in flying will be physically able to do so: 80 to 85 percent, according to his early indications. “This is about inclusivity,” he said. “We want as many people to travel as hopefully want to.”

SS1 and SS2
A full-scale model of SpaceShipOne hangs above the SS2 cabin model, which is embedded in a full-sized illustration of the notional size of SS2. (credit: J. Foust)

SS2: a green machine?

In a break from previous public presentations about Virgin Galactic and SS2, Branson and Whitehorn played up the environmentally-friendly aspects of the flight. “The average shuttle flight produces the same environmental impact as all of New York City does in just under one week,” Whitehorn claimed. “This project is about one ten-thousandth of that.”

“It’s all very well to look at building a system that’s environmentally benign,” Whitehorn said, but if those systems are untried or pose safety hazards to the vehicle, “you add risk to the project.”

Whitehorn emphasized that SpaceShipTwo flights would generate only a tiny fraction of the carbon dioxide of even a typical airliner. “Eight people [on SS2] will have the same CO2 output, quite precisely, as a business-class seat on Virgin Atlantic on a New York-to-London flight.” Even the press kit noted that New Mexico’s Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic will establish commercial operations, will be powered by renewable energy.

Emphasizing this might seem a little odd, but it fits into Virgin’s recent broader emphasis on the environment and alternative fuels. Earlier last month Branson announced the launch of a new subsidiary, Virgin Fuels, which will focus on biofuels and other renewable energy sources. Branson also announced last month that he plans on investing all his profits from his airline and train companies over the next ten years—estimated to be $3 billion—into developing energy sources that don’t contribute to anthropogenic global warming. Just a day before the SS2 press conference, Branson also proposed changing the ways airports operate to cut back on the amount of time airliner engines are running on the ground, reducing emissions.

However, that doesn’t mean that Branson plans to require SS2 to use exotic biofuels or other propellants. Instead, SS2 will use a hybrid rocket engine similar, but not identical to, the one used on SS1. Whitehorn said a new fuel was being developed for SS2, but did not go into specifics. Whitehorn added that the safety advantages of hybrid engines outweigh any environmental benefits other types of engines might provide. “It’s all very well to look at building a system that’s environmentally benign,” he said, but if those systems are untried or pose safety hazards to the vehicle, “you add risk to the project.”

Looking ahead

This new emphasis on the environment also fits into Virgin’s long-term plans. The company sees SS2 as a steppingstone to SpaceShipThree, a future vehicle capable of reaching orbit. “The idea of the SpaceShipTwo project is that we will hopefully develop a SpaceShipThree out of it,” Whitehorn said. “And that will be able to do science and carry payloads into space.” Part of that emphasis on science from space, he added, was for climate change research, noting that “the debate about climate change and global warming wouldn’t have reached the sophistication it’s now got” without the research performed over the years by NASA.

Another market for SS3 may be point-to-point suborbital travel. Whitehorn said that they are developing two flight profiles for SS2: one that essentially goes straight up and down, and a second, shallower one that would allow SS2 to fly an unspecified distance downrange. “SpaceShipTwo for us is not just about space tourism,” he said. “SpaceShipTwo is about the beginning of creating a methodology whereby we can do payload and science in space, move towards an orbital craft eventually, and also move towards a concept for flying in the future whereby we can take people around the planet by going outside the atmosphere, thereby reducing all environmental impact from travel around the world in the long term.”

“And to take people from London to Australia very, very quickly, possibly as short as half an hour,” added Branson.

“We have to be in space,” said Whitehorn. “If we’re told we can never go to space, and human beings don’t belong in space, then frankly we don’t have a future on this planet, either.”

In the meantime, though, the focus is on the development of SS2. The next major milestone will be in about a year, when Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites will roll out SS2 and its carrier aircraft, White Knight 2. (Whitehorn did say that White Knight 2 will bear “quite a bit of similarity” to the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer aircraft built by Scaled Composites for Steve Fossett’s record-setting around-the-world solo flights.) Flight tests will begin in late 2007 or early 2008, and Virgin anticipates beginning commercial service by 2009.

Those initial flights, Whitehorn said, will hopefully trigger an outpouring of private-sector investment in the field. “Everything we do now relies on” space, he noted, “and there’s been no private-sector investment in it at all.” Whitehorn then compared space to the mobile phone sector, which “exploded” when governments opened up the field to the private sector. “That’s got to happen in space if we’re going to take it forward, and we have to find a way to showcase it.” The way to showcase it, he said, is to demonstrate the technology with SS2 and passenger flights, demonstrating to investors that it is safe and effective.

And while those initial flights will be filled with paying passengers, game show contestants, and lottery winners, all eager to experience space, Virgin Galactic is very serious about the long-term importance of SS2 and its successors. “We have to be in space,” said Whitehorn. “If we’re told we can never go to space, and human beings don’t belong in space, then frankly we don’t have a future on this planet, either.”