Virgin Galactic

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Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic.png
Operating basesSpaceport America
Parent companyVirgin Group
HeadquartersLas Cruces, New Mexico
Key people

George Whitesides (CEO)

Steve Isakowitz (President)
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Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic.png
Operating basesSpaceport America
Parent companyVirgin Group
HeadquartersLas Cruces, New Mexico
Key people

George Whitesides (CEO)

Steve Isakowitz (President)

Virgin Galactic is an American-based, British-owned commercial spaceflight company within Richard Branson's Virgin Group which plans to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites. Further in the future, Virgin Galactic hopes to offer orbital human spaceflights as well.[1] Virgin Galactic's spacecraft is launched from a large aeroplane, giving the spacecraft more initial speed and altitude than if it were launched from the ground.



As of 2008, Virgin Galactic planned to have a fleet of two White Knight Two mother ships and five or more SpaceShipTwo tourist suborbital spacecraft.[2]

White Knight Two carrier aircraft
Virgin MotherShips
  1. VMS Eve[3]
  2. VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett[4][5][6]
SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft
Virgin SpaceShips
  1. VSS Enterprise[7]
  2. VSS Voyager[8][9]

Commercial spaceflight locations[edit]

Test launches are planned to take place from the Mojave Spaceport, where Scaled Composites is constructing the spacecraft. As of 2008, Virgin Galactic expected that initial passenger flights would take place there as well.[10][dated info]

An international architectural competition was held in 2007–2008 for the design of Virgin Galactic's operating base, Spaceport America in New Mexico. The contract was awarded to URS and Foster + Partners architects.[11] The original plan called for flight operations to transfer from the California desert to the new spaceport upon completion of the spaceport.[10] In the event, the spaceport has been complete for several years now and Virgin Galactic has not yet completed the development and test program of SpaceShipTwo.

Alternate locations for commercial flights have also been envisioned. Virgin Galactic announced in 2008 that it would eventually operate in Europe out of Spaceport Sweden.[12][dated info] Will Whitehorn stated in an interview with on April 29, 2008 that the company was considering flying from a UK base as well: RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, during the summer months only.[13] There were rumors in 2008 that the base might be located in RAF Machrihanish (Campbeltown, Scotland) or an unnamed location in southwest England.[14][dated info]

In October 2010, the company held an event at Spaceport America where it ceremoniously opened the first runway. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson attended the ceremony, and SpaceShipTwo, also known as the "VSS Enterprise", was landed during the event. For the landing, the VSS Enterprise was carried underneath the fuselage of Virgin Galactic's Mother Ship Eve.[15]

Key personnel[edit]

Dave (David) Mackay, former RAF test pilot, was named chief pilot for Virgin Galactic in 2011,[16] as well as in-house chief test-pilot.[17]

The first line pilot and second test-pilot was hired in 2011 for Virgin Galactic, Keith "Coma" Colmer, a former USAF test pilot.[18] He will also work in the test program with Scaled Composites.[19]

In June 2013, Steve Isakowitz was named Virgin Galactic's first president.[20]

Virgin Galactic's typeface was custom designed for the venture in 2006 by Dalton Maag and GBH. It is called the "Elevon" font.[21][importance?]

Commencement of space flights[edit]

In July 2008 Richard Branson predicted the maiden space voyage would take place within 18 months.[22]

Will Whitehorn, former president of Virgin Galactic, stated in 2010 that the company would "not put a definite timeline on when the commercial flights would begin," but that "all was on track with its development plans," and that "If all goes to plan," the inaugural suborbital flight should happen "within two years [of June 2009]".[23]

Refining the projected schedule in October 2009, Virgin Galactic continued to decline to announce a firm schedule for commercial flights, but did reiterate that initial flights would take place from Spaceport America. Commercial availability will be based on a "safety-driven schedule," which it hopes to achieve "within two years."[24]

In 2009, Scaled Composite's president Doug Shane said that White Knight Two's first SpaceShipTwo captive flights would be in early 2010.[25] Both aircraft did fly together in March 2010.[26] On December 7, 2009, SpaceShipTwo was unveiled at the Mojave Spaceport.[27][28]

By February 2012, SpaceShipTwo had completed 15 test flights while attached to White Knight Two, and an additional 16 glide tests, the last of which took place in September 2011.[29]

The first rocket-powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo took place on April 29, 2013, when pilot Mark Stucky and copilot Mike Alsbury initiated an engine burn of 16 seconds duration. The brief flight began at an altitude of 47,000 feet, and reached a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet. During this time, SS2 went supersonic, achieving Mach 1.2.[30]

On May 14, 2013, Richard Branson stated on Virgin Radio Dubai's Kris Fade Morning Show that he would be aboard the first public flight of SpaceShipTwo, which was scheduled for December 25, 2013.[31]

The third rocket powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo took place on January 10, 2014 and successfully tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System (RCS) and the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said “With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014".[32]

Potential collaboration with NASA[edit]

In February 2007, officials from Virgin and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the potential for collaboration.[33][34]


Virgin Galactic was initially funded exclusively by Virgin Group. Over US$100 million was invested between 2004 and 2010.[35]

VG took on a major investment—and its first outside investment—in 2010 from the Dubai Aabar Investments group, a state-controlled sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi. Aabar bought a 31.8% stake in VG for US$280 million, with a simultaneous announcement of a planned future investment of an additional US$100 million to fund a development program to launch small satellites into orbit. In return, in addition to the equity stake in Virgin Galactic, Aabar received "exclusive regional rights to launch Virgin Galactic tourism and scientific research space flights from the United Arab Emirates capital" by entering into a "strategic partnership" with VG.[36][35]

The previously-planned second investment of Aabar into VG was made in July 2011, with an additional US$110 million invested raising the equity share of Aabar from 31.8% to 37.8%. [36]

As of June 2014, Virgin Galactic is in talks with Google about taking a stake in VG and in providing considerable private capital for funding both development and operations. The total deal size, in both a potential joint venture with VG, and in direct investment in VG, is on the order of "hundreds of millions" of US dollars.[37]

Aircraft and spacecraft[edit]


White Knight Two in the air
White Knight Two on the ground

The White Knight Two is a special airplane built as the mother ship and launch-platform for the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo and the unmanned launch vehicle LauncherOne. The mother ship is a large fixed-wing aircraft with two hulls linked together by a central wing.


Main article: SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShip Two[edit]

Main article: SpaceShipTwo

Sir Richard Branson unveiled the rocket plane on December 7, 2009. SpaceShipTwo was presented to the world at the Mojave Desert in California. The vehicle and mothership are undergoing testing before being allowed to take ticketed individuals on short-hop trips just above the atmosphere. Sir Richard Branson, who heads the Virgin Group, intends to run the first flights out of New Mexico before extending operations around the globe. Built from lightweight carbon composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor, SS2 is based on the Ansari X PRIZE-winning SpaceShipOne concept - a rocket plane that is lifted initially by a carrier vehicle before blasting skywards. SS1 became the world's first private spaceship with a series of high-altitude flights in 2004.[38]

Its successor is twice as large, measuring 18 m (60 ft) in length. Whereas SpaceShipOne only had a single pilot (and the ballast equivalent of two passengers), SS2 will have a crew of two and room for six passengers. More than 400 people were reported to have signed up for a flight as of early 2011,[39] at a ticket price of $200,000 per person with a $20,000 deposit. The ticket price was raised to $250,000 in early May 2013, and is stated to remain at that price until at least 1,000 passengers have signed up.[40] It was announced on June 17, 2013 that the 600th ticket had been sold to fly with Virgin Galactic,[41] and that 640 had signed up by August 2013.[42] Tickets are available from more than 140 "space agents" worldwide.[43] Passengers who have already submitted their deposit include Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie.[44][45] Each passenger will experience approximately six minutes of weightlessness during what will be a two-hour end-to-end flight. Many of those future "astronauts" have attended the VIP unveiling at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson christened the spaceliner Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) Enterprise.

The New Mexico authorities are investing almost $200m (£121m) in a purpose-built facility in Sierra County, New Mexico, Spaceport America. It will have a 3,000 m (10,000 ft) runway and a space-age terminal and hangar building designed by Foster and Partners. Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic enterprise will have competitors, but he is almost certain to be the first to market, barring any problems arising in the test campaign.[citation needed] SpaceShipTwo's carrier plane is called WhiteKnightTwo. It was finished in 2008, and has already begun its own trials.[46]

In May 2014 Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America entered into an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate routine space missions launched from Spaceport America, setting out how they will be integrated into the National Airspace System.[47]

Overview of the SS2 spacecraft flights[edit]

It is planned that the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft will be robust and affordable enough to take paying passengers. The craft is expected to accommodate six passengers and two pilots.[48] Its planned trajectory will make it a suborbital journey with a short period of weightlessness. SpaceShipTwo will be carried to about 16 kilometers, or 52000 ft, by a carrier aircraft, White Knight II. At the point where the carrier aircraft reaches its maximum height, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle will separate and continue to over 100 km (the Kármán line, a common definition of where "space" begins). The time from liftoff of the White Knight booster carrying SpaceShipTwo until the touchdown of the spacecraft after the suborbital flight will be about 2.5 hours. The suborbital flight itself will only be a small fraction of that time. The weightlessness will last approximately 6 minutes.[49] Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during these 6 minutes and float around the cabin.[48]

In addition to the suborbital passenger business, Virgin Galactic will market SpaceShipTwo for suborbital space science missions and market White Knight Two for "small satellite" launch services. It had planned to initiate RFPs for the satellite business in early 2010, but flights had not materialized as of 2012.[24]

SpaceShipTwo's projected performance[edit]

SpaceShipTwo flies to a height of 110 km, going beyond the defined boundary of space (100 km) and lengthening the experience of weightlessness [for its passengers].[48] The spacecraft reaches a top speed of 4000 km/h (2485 mph), faster than current fighter jets. It has double the crew (2) and can carry three times the number of passengers (6) of its predecessor. In honor of the science fiction series Star Trek, the first two ships are named after the fictional starships Enterprise and Voyager. To reenter the atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo folds its wings up and then returns them to their original position for an unpowered descent flight back onto the runway. The craft has a very limited cross-range capability, and until other planned spaceports are built worldwide, it has to land in the area where it started. Further spaceports are planned in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, with the intention that the spaceline will have a worldwide availability and commodity in the future.


LauncherOne is an orbital launch vehicle that was publicly announced by Virgin Galactic in July 2012. It is being designed to launch "smallsat" payloads of 100 kilograms (220 lb) into Earth orbit, with launches projected to begin in 2016. Several commercial customers have already contracted for launches, including GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services, and Planetary Resources. Both Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems are developing satellite buses "optimized to the design of LauncherOne."[50][51]

In October 2012, Virgin announced that LauncherOne could place 200 kg (440 lb) in Sun-synchronous orbit.[52] Virgin plans to market the 100 kg (220 lb) payload delivery to low-Earth orbit (LEO) for under US$10,000,000 per mission,[50] while the maximum payload for LEO missions is 230 kg (500 lb).[53]

Virgin Galactic has been working on the LauncherOne concept since at least late 2008,[54] and the technical specifications were first described in some detail in late 2009.[55] The LauncherOne configuration is proposed to be an expendable, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket air-launched from a White Knight Two.[56] This would make it a similar configuration to that used by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus, or a smaller version of the StratoLaunch.


LauncherOne will be a two stage air-launched vehicle using RP-1/LOX liquid rocket engines. The second stage will be powered by NewtonOne, a 16 kilonewtons (3,500 lbf) thrust engine. The first stage will be powered by a scaled-up design of the same basic technology as NewtonOne, called NewtonTwo, with 211 kilonewtons (47,500 lbf) of thrust. Both engines have been designed, and as of January 2014 first articles have been built. NewtonOne has been tested up to a full-duration burn of five minutes. NewtonTwo has made several short-duration firings as of early 2014.[53]

The Spaceship Company[edit]

The Spaceship Company (TSC) is a new aerospace production company founded by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Scaled Composites. It is building a fleet of commercial spaceships and launch aircraft with the intention of making widespread space travel a reality. TSC’s initial launch customer is Virgin Galactic, which has contracted to purchase five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwos.[57] To meet Virgin Galactic’s requirements, TSC has contracted Scaled Composites to develop and build prototypes of WK2 and SS2, of which TSC started full-scale production in 2008.[58][59]

Virgin Galactic acquired 100% ownership of TSC in 2012 by acquiring the 30% stake still owned by Scaled Composites.[60]


There are numerous other companies actively working on commercial passenger suborbital spaceflight.[clarification needed]

See also[edit]


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  4. ^ Branson, Richard (October 10, 2007). "My Friend, Steve Fossett". Time. Retrieved October 31, 2007. 
  5. ^ Burack, Ari (October 10, 2007). "Sir Richard Branson, black robed as Father Richard for zany party inaugurating Virgin American flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas". San Francisco Sentinel. Retrieved February 28, 2008. 
  6. ^ Nizza, Mike (October 11, 2007). "The Legend of Steve Fossett Takes Root". New York Times. Retrieved December 20, 2007. 
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  17. ^ Coventry Telegraph, "Spaceship pilot to visit Coventry University", June 13, 2011
  18. ^ SpaceDaily, "Virgin Galactic selects second pilot", Space Travel, November 1, 2011
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  20. ^ In Year of Firsts, Virgin Galactic Names Alum as President. (2013-07-12). Retrieved on 2013-08-27.
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  22. ^ | work=BBC News | title=Branson unveils space tourism jett | date=July 28, 2008 | accessdate=March 7, 2014
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  25. ^ PICTURES: WhiteKnight Two's spoilers get holes
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  33. ^ Memorandum of Understanding Between Virgin Galactic, LLC and National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ames Research Center.
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  53. ^ a b Boyle, Alan (2014-01-23). "Hello, Newton: Virgin Galactic unveils its 'other' rocket engine". NBC News. Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  54. ^ EXCLUSIVE: Virgin Galactic unveils LauncherOne name!, Rob Coppinger, Flightglobal Hyperbola, December 9, 2008
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  56. ^ Rob Coppinger (July 11, 2012). "Virgin Galactic Unveils LauncherOne Rocket for Private Satellite Launches". 
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  58. ^ [1][dead link]
  59. ^ Scaled Composites: Projects - FirebirdBiPodSpaceShipTwo Test SummariesWhiteKnightTwo Flight Test SummariesRocketMotorTwo Hot-Fire Test SummariesProjects - Main Landing Page Te...
  60. ^ "Virgin Galactic Acquires Full Ownership of The Spaceship Company". Yahoo Finance. 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2012-10-06. 

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