YOUR FLIGHT IS NOW DEPARTING FROM SPACE TERMINAL 1; This Is Sir Norman Foster's Virgin Galactic Terminal Building in the New Mexico Desert: Like the Futuristic Aircraft Ready to Shuttle Tourists to the Edge of Our Atmosphere, It Is about to Move from Technical Drawing to Reality. Angus Batey Reports on the Final Leg of Sir Richard Branson's Most Spaced-Out Venture Yet

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

YOUR FLIGHT IS NOW DEPARTING FROM SPACE TERMINAL 1; This Is Sir Norman Foster's Virgin Galactic Terminal Building in the New Mexico Desert: Like the Futuristic Aircraft Ready to Shuttle Tourists to the Edge of Our Atmosphere, It Is about to Move from Technical Drawing to Reality. Angus Batey Reports on the Final Leg of Sir Richard Branson's Most Spaced-Out Venture Yet


Byline: Angus Batey

The first thing you notice about the Mojave Air & Space Port is the large number of commercial airliners just sitting around under the desert sun. The climate here means it's the perfect place for aircraft manufacturers to store planes whose owners haven't managed to finish paying for them. If the spectre of this aviation elephants' graveyard wasn't strange enough, five miles to the west is the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm - the second-biggest in the world, with more than 5,000 wind turbines.

It's a weird landscape; and it seems to inspire off-thewall businesses, and the one-of-a-kind thinkers who run them. One of these businesses is called, with the kind of obviousness that seems redolent of a gentler age, the Spaceship Company - and in its workshop at the airfield, spaceships are being built.

If that conjures up images of stick-drawing lunar modules or sleek, Wernher von Braun rockets towerblock high, think again: this spaceship is made of carbon fibre, powered by recycled nylon and laughing gas, and turns into a shuttlecock so it can flutter straight down to Earth. And instead of sitting on a launch pad in Florida it's dropped from an aircraft built around the biggest piece of carbon fibre composite in history.

And both are designed by a company whose founder lives in a half-buried pyramid in the middle of the desert decorated with murals of aliens communing with ancient Egyptians.

This is the astonishing backdrop to what promises to be the first venture to take paying passengers into space.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic isn't the only company taking the business of space tourism seriously. But it's further along with its preparations than its competitors, with its Lord Norman Foster-designed Spaceport America due to be completed next year in New Mexico, and its spaceship three months into its flight-test programme.

Virgin Galactic is very close to realising the dream of making travel to the edge of space available to ordinary people - and those customers with [pounds sterling]140,000 to spare are going to double the number of the world's astronaut corps almost overnight.

'New Mexico passed the legislation in March to allow for informed consent of participants,' stresses Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic's MD. 'As of now, under US law these people are participating in this space programme.They're astronauts - it's a legal reality. There's been just over 500 people in space since 1961 - we hope to carry 500 in our first year.'

To get numbers like this, Virgin Galactic needs a small fleet of spacecraft and the aircraft that carry them to 50,000ft for launch. The plan is for the Spaceship Company - a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Mojave-based aerospace firm Scaled Composites - to build three launch aircraft and five spaceships, as Virgin Galactic works towards taking fare-paying 'participants' into sub-orbit space from 2012, and progress towards its goal of three daily spaceflights.

As the comprehensive flight-test programme gets under way, the first job of the test pilots is to ensure that the spaceship and mothership can fly safely, efficiently and as intended when joined together, and its these flights - known as 'captive carry' flights, because the smaller SpaceShipTwo craft will remain attached to the WhiteKnightTwo aeroplane - that are currently taking place from the Mojave Air & Space Port. Yet even as they fly the aircraft, the pilots are learning all the time about how to operate the spaceship as well.

WhiteKnightTwo's twin pods are the same size and shape as the tubular fuselage of SpaceShipTwo, their six-passenger interiors are identical, and the mothership and spaceship work on exactly the same control systems. So every time a test pilot flies the mothership, he's getting experience controlling the spacecraft as well.

Unusually for a modern aircraft, computers do not control any of the onboard flight systems: there are computers, but they're used solely for monitoring and informational purposes. …

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YOUR FLIGHT IS NOW DEPARTING FROM SPACE TERMINAL 1; This Is Sir Norman Foster's Virgin Galactic Terminal Building in the New Mexico Desert: Like the Futuristic Aircraft Ready to Shuttle Tourists to the Edge of Our Atmosphere, It Is about to Move from Technical Drawing to Reality. Angus Batey Reports on the Final Leg of Sir Richard Branson's Most Spaced-Out Venture Yet
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