On the evening of Wednesday, 4 April 2012, over 120 guests assembled in The Boeing Company’s auditorium in Arlington to hear Mr. George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic, deliver a lecture on future commercial space programmes.Mr Whitesides outlined how the $10 million X Prize offered by the Ansari Foundation had initiated the first steps towards the development of commercial space. This prize had spurred numerous companies, including Scaled Composites under the renowned aircraft designer, Burt Rutan. However, no such attempt could have been accomplished without the financial backing that had come from Paul Allen, one of the founders of MicroSoft. Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group had determined that there was probably a market for commercial space operations and had formed Virgin Galactic which then teamed with Scaled Composites to support their X Prize entry; WhiteKnight One and SpaceShip One.
In 2004 SpaceShip One was air launched from its mothership, WhiteKnight One and successfully demonstrated flight in excess of 100 km altitude (the edge of space). Having done so twice in less than 14 days, it won the X Prize. As a result, Virgin Galactic was off and running offering private individuals the opportunity to fly to sub-orbital space at $200,000 per flight. Building on the same basic design as the winning X-Prize vehicle, Virgin Galactic has now successfully flown the WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two. This latter is a two crew and six passenger machine which will be used for the first commercial flights. The carrier aircraft, WhiteKnight Two will carry SpaceShip Two to about 52,000 feet at which point they will separate and the SpaceShip Two will continue using its rocket powered engine to some 110 kms, beyond the defined boundary of space (100 kms) for a sub-orbital journey with a short period of weightlessness. Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during this time, about six minutes, and float around the cabin.
The first commercial passenger flights will take place from the purpose built Mohave Spaceport, and Mr. Whitesides anticipated that they would commence in 2014. To date deposits have been received from more than 500 people, including many famous names from Hollywood and elsewhere.
The lecture evening was a joint event held in co-operation with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics National Capital Section.
The next Washington DC Branch lecture evening will take place on the 7th June – “Europe’s Emission Trading Scheme: Conflict or Compromise?”