|If successful, the SS2 and the WK2 could pave the way for a much larger craft that could ferry several hundred passengers into low orbital space and the land in another country or continent without the need for expensive jet fuel.|
|From the Earth to the Moon: Cash or Charge|
|by James Russo|
It's no surprise that with the cost of air travel rising due to a variety of factors and with NASA orbital shuttle program nearing the end of its run that many self-made millionaires and billionaires have taken on the challenge of the space race themselves.
Leading the pack of internet millionaires and industrialists who hope to be the first person to offer private flights into outer space are Burt Rutan and Richard Branson. Burt Rutan is the head of Skunk Works, a company he created to do space related work outside of NASA and free from government intervention. Richard Branson, recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of Virgin airlines.
Both men are no stranger to private manned space flight. A few years ago, both men won the Ansari X-Prize for the launch of SpaceShipOne which was the first private vehicle to carry a human into space. SpaceShipOne's one sole purpose was two fold: win the X-prize and prove that such a feat could be accomplished outside of NASA.
Both of this "missions" were accomplished, but the success of SpaceShipOne started Rutan and Branson thinking that such a craft if made larger, more comfortable, and more efficient could succeed at a much higher level. Both men envisioned a private spacecraft that could ferry passengers into space and possibly even bring passengers to other parts of the globe in a fraction of the time than conventional airlines and even faster than the much maligned Supersonic Concorde.
Such a space vehicle, if feasible, could greatly reduce the consumption of jet fuel currently being used by the world's major airlines. According to an article in Airwise News, kerosene-type jet fuel consumption in the United States was currently at a staggering 1.64 million barrels per day. Few studies have been done on the economic impact of jet air travel. Granted, the pollution caused by jet planes is no where in the realm as that caused by cars, but jet travel is not completely off the hook. While cars and trucks have become more fuel efficient, airliners have become larger over the past twenty years and burn more fuel.
One must remember that jet air travel is not just passenger jets alone but also private jets, cargo and mail jets, as well as military jets. Also, many helicopters both private and commercial as well as those used by city and federal agencies burn some degree of jet fuel. A study done by a team of researchers concluded that there were strong traces of jet fuel present in the atmosphere hours after airliners had traveled by. Because jets fly higher to the Earth's atmosphere than cars do, residue from the fuel burnt has less distance to travel before contacting the fragile ozone layer.
This where we Burt Rutan and Richard Branson come in. The concept of a space plane which could ferry passengers to transcontinental as well as transatlantic destinations has long been a dream of the aerospace industry. 1950's era Popular Science magazines sparked the world's imagination for such a craft. Branson's Virgin Galactic space line is the front runner in a crowded field of space tourism initiatives that includes Jeff Bezos owned Blue Origin. Branson has ordered five SpaceShipTwo's and two White Knight Two mother ships to carry the SS2's.
Already, 100 people have paid up to $200,000 each for a seat on the first few flights of the Virgin Galactic space plane. Commercial flights could start as soon as 2009. The SS2 is slight redesign of the first craft, but with the hull expanded to carry six passengers and two pilots. The real excitement comes from the redesigned mother ship, White Knight Two. The new mothership features two hulls: one hull is a replica of the SS2 and passengers can ride alone for a full-on space voyage the next day. The second hull will carry cut-rate day-trippers into the stratosphere.
Virgin Galactic will have enough range to reach landing areas in the Atlantic and the craft will be the first of its type. It is this potential to take off and land over several miles that makes Virgin Galactic truly history's first space based airliner. If successful, the SS2 and the WK2 could pave the way for a much larger craft that could ferry several hundred passengers into low orbital space and then land in another country or continent without the need for expensive jet fuel.