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A look inside Virgin Galactic's new ride

By Eric Adams
Popular Science
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(PopSci.comexternal link) -- Virgin Galactic recently unveiled a mock-up of the slick, Philippe Starck --designed interior of its SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital tourist vehicle.

The real bird won't be shown for at least a year, but at a press conference in New York, led by Richard Branson himself and Virgin Galactic chief Will Whitehorn, gave a good peek into how the program is progressing and what these first consumer spaceflights will be like.

The cabin itself is more than three times as large as that of the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne (SS1), accommodating six passengers and two pilots and permitting plenty of float-around possibilities during the estimated five minutes of weightlessness the vehicle will achieve at the peak of its ascent.

Burt Rutan, designer of both vehicles and their motherships, White Knight and WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), and his team at Scaled Composites seem to be on track for the prototype unveiling late next year, although the stated 2009 commencement of commercial flights seems optimistic, given the apparent delays in the development of the scaled-up, more complex SS2.

Mockups of the cabin hints at Rutan's strategy -- make the spaceflight experience user-friendly for anyone other than hardcore test pilots.

In particular, he had to address the issue of the high-G climb out and the reentry, which was extraordinarily violent for the pilots on the three SS1 suborbital flights. SS2's cabin has ergonomic seats that automatically recline to orient the passengers' bodies to best absorb the G-forces.

They will be at a 60-degree upright angle for the ascent and then recline to a nearly horizontal attitude for the descent, with the passengers' legs comfortably bent in order to tolerate the high-G ride and the extreme buffeting that accompanies it.

Once back in the atmosphere, the seats will return to a 60-degree angle for the glide back to the spaceport.

The fully pressurized cabin will have 15 windows, including several on the floor and ceiling, permitting passengers to see Earth from multiple angles during their free-floating period. The view will be approximately 1,000 miles in any direction.

Large dials on the bulkhead will convey the mission time, speed of the spaceship, altitude and current G-forces being experienced. Passengers will wear lightweight, form-fitting pressure suits and helmets to ease movement around the cabin.

The overall flight profile, though extended, will mimic that of SS1. The enormous WK2 mothership -- which will be larger than a 757 and have a cabin identical to SS2, permitting the aircraft to be used as a training vehicle for the Virgin Galactic passengers -- will carry the 60-foot-long SS2 to 10 miles above sea level, about 50,000 feet, and release it.

SS2's hybrid motor will then ignite, accelerating passengers at four Gs to three times the speed of sound. For reentry, SS2's wings will pitch upward, "feathering" in a shuttlecock formation to automatically position the ship for the steep descent. At 70,000 feet, the wings will return to a horizontal glide formation for the runway landing.

Branson, in keeping with his recently announced commitment to environmental consciousness, extolled the spaceship's green qualities.

"It might be strange to think of a space vehicle as 'green,' " he said, "especially when you consider that the amount of energy released in a typical space shuttle launch could power New York City for a week. But we've created a fuel for SS2 that can launch eight people into space while expending the same amount of carbon dioxide as a single business-class seat on a New York-to-London flight."

The first SS2 will be called VSS Enterprise, and Virgin Galactic expects its first full fleet to comprise two motherships and five SS2s -- which would also permit the company to quickly expand its operations beyond the initial spaceport in New Mexico to other countries that permit the flights (the U.K. is high on its list).

Virgin is sticking by their ticket price of $200,000 and expects to offer lotteries and other means of democratizing the opportunity, including a reality-TV game show that is now under development.

Longer-term, Whitehorn says, the program is "about developing a methodology for spaceflight." He expects to use the SS2 technology for space and Earth-science studies, to expand to orbital flights, and to begin offering high-speed "spaceline" service going from, say, London to Sydney in less than an hour.


SpaceShipTwo will have plenty of float-around possibilities for its six passengers.



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