What's Next For Virgin Galactic...

Rutan, Branson Steal The Show With SpaceShip Plans

The SpaceShip Company -- that's the straightforward name of the next (publicly announced) venture for Burt Rutan, announced last night at Theater in the Woods, here at Oshkosh AirVenture. Rutan and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic took the stage before an overflow crowd and said they had signed the papers that day to create the new company as a joint venture. "Scaled Composites will do the research and development, and then hand over those designs to the new company, which will be the manufacturer and marketer for what we envision as a large fleet of spaceships," Rutan said. The company's first project (funded to the tune of $120 million by Virgin Galactic) is to build the five SpaceShipTwos already on order for Virgin Galactic, but Branson and Rutan made clear they expect many more, and already are thinking about the next generation of suborbital and eventually orbital commercial spaceships. (Rutan would like to ultimately beat this planet's governments in the race to put humans on Mars.) The new company will be established in Mojave, Calif., alongside Scaled Composites. Rutan said SpaceShipTwo will have a cabin as big as that on a Gulfstream V and allow room for six or seven passengers to move about freely and enjoy their five minutes of weightlessness. He also said the ships will be capable of flying as high as 140 kilometers and over a range of a couple of hundred miles, to extend their trajectories beyond the basic up-and-down of SpaceShipOne.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said the ships will be flying by 2008 and will fly over 35,000 passengers in the first 10 years ... but Rutan later said that he hasn't announced any timeline, but did let slip he believes competing "spacelines" will push the number of passengers closer to 100,000 in a relatively short period of time. Rutan also invited anyone in the audience who wants to be part of this effort to send in their resumes ... we think that includes you, too. "We have several extremely interesting programs we're working on over the next 10 years or so," he said. Also at Theater in the Woods last night, EAA President Tom Poberezny said Scaled is going to build a copy of SpaceShipOne that will go on display in the EAA AirVenture Museum by next year's AirVenture, and he presented this year's Freedom of Flight award to Mike Melvill, the first commercial astronaut.

...After Hundreds Greet SpaceShipOne...

On Monday, hundreds of people crowded the Aeroshell Square area to watch the (somewhat firm) landing and rollout of the bulbous aircraft duo -- SpaceShipOne and White Knight. The occupants were greeted by EAA President Tom Poberezny and other EAA officials (who drove up in one of EAA's equally bulbous roofless Volkswagen Beetles). Rutan and astronauts Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie each took turns thanking EAA for the fundamental role their participation in the event over the years had in setting the stage for their launch of the commercial manned space industry. Poberezny recalled that during one of Rutan's 35 consecutive visits to the show, he said that one day he'd arrive there from space. And while that might not be technically true this time around, Rutan said his turn is coming. The stop in Oshkosh was the third leg in a trip to take the space ship to a place of honor in the National Air and Space Museum. The team took the aircraft to a fly-in in Oklahoma, "just to give them all a thrill" with a once-in-a-lifetime flyby.

Rutan said he had spare engines after the successful X-Prize flights and had considered using them for flights with passengers (Binnie and Melvill both flew with ballast to simulate the weight of passengers). But he told a news conference just after arrival in Oshkosh that he didn't want to risk the spacecraft before it could be taken to Washington. He noted that the test program for SpaceShipTwo, the commercial passenger craft being built for Virgin Galactic will involve 400 flights. "I'll be on one of them," he said. He also said that test program would put more people into space than have flown there in the last 44 years of spaceflight. Forty-four years, which have so far yielded fatalities for each 62 flights, according to Rutan. It's the result of ground-launch methodology that among other things places people "on top of a one kiloton bomb," according to Virgin Galactic's Whitehorn. Part of the plan is to exponentially surpass that safety record.

...Pilots Needed

Think you've got the right stuff to fly a commercial spaceliner? Get in line. Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said the company has received more than 4,000 applications for pilot jobs in its new enterprise and estimates it will need about 75 after the full flight schedule is in place. "We will be looking for pilots," he said. Of course Virgin has thousands of its own pilots to choose from in its three airlines and there have been applications from the U.S. as well -- mostly ex-military, ex-NASA, and test pilots. Qualifications are going to be tough and those with military, space and test flight backgrounds are likely to get priority. But not everyone will need a fat logbook to get a foot in the door. And some early passengers may only need a computer and $10. Whitehorn said the company would consider developing an internet "game of skill" that would allow players to fly SpaceShipTwos into space. The payments would enter the players into a raffle and once the requisite price (likely near $200,000 for early flights) was matched, a winner would be chosen. For pilots, the company has plans for a reality TV show in which contestants would go through a full training program to become commercial space pilots. There's no word yet on the selection process for the show. And while becoming a space pilot may be too much of a stretch for many people, Whitehorn emphasized that Virgin Galactic intends to "democratize" space travel by making it as easy as possible to get ordinary people to the black sky as passengers. He noted that 80 percent of people are physically capable of making the flight but not many are now financially equipped. The well-heeled will be the first commercial passengers (Whitehorn leaked that Victoria Principal is on the list) but Whitehorn said that as they gain experience and equipment (provided by the $200,000 fares put up by the first relative few) he said he expects the price to drop to about $50,000. "That's the cost of a cruise," he said. (We just looked at each other.)