There was a time where going into space meant traveling to the stars. Now going into space simply means leaving the earth’s atmosphere. With all the new technology being created and used so easily, not just for big businesses but for everyone, today, getting into space doesn’t seem to be so difficult. In fact, as mentioned before, that has become the challenge: to make getting nearly anything useful into space as easily as possible. But what about people? People, who can be compared to space tourists, already want to experience space: the weightlessness, the incredible views, and the awe inspiring feelings Hollywood has shown us for over 30 years. Is this an eventuality or just nonsensical? Well many years ago Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group Ltd didn’t think so. He thought giving people a ride into space was simply the next step in the progression of space flight technology.
When did Branson get the idea for giving people a ride into space?
This is actually not a new idea! The Virgin brand, seen here, has a great many different products in all kinds of industries and one of them was originally Virgin airlines, but in 2004 Branson turned Virgin airlines into Virgin Galactic. Branson specifically designed Virgin Galactic with the sole purpose of sending tourists into space for a short time and returning to Earth. Eventually, he wanted to move on to perform low orbiting scientific flights and longer tourist flights, but that hasn’t happened yet.
How is Branson giving people a ride into space?
We’ve all seen the movies. It is highly impractical to put tourists into the cockpit of a rocket and shoot them into space. So Branson saw the need of leaving passengers in a plane, but not just any plane, he would have to design a new one.
- Take off couldn’t be from the ground. Like a rocket, it would need enough fuel to escape Earth’s gravity. That means it would have to be carried by another aircraft, the white knight two, to a little over 50,000 feet before its own engines would blast off. Amazingly the white knight two looks nearly identical to the Stratolaunch we talked about in a previous blog “Largest plane ever built rolls over old records”!
- This plane had 2 newly designed hybrid engines that used a solid nylon and liquid nitrogenous oxide mixed fuel instead of a solid rubber mixed fuel. They get the plane to roughly Mach 1 and just over 360,000 feet above the earth. This is well above 330,000 feet, where scientists agree “space” begins.
- Once at that height, passengers would be allowed about 5 minutes to float around, look out the windows, and take pictures before the plane would begin its return to Earth.
- Although the plane is considered to be in space, it would not need heat shields because it would be coming back to earth at a shallower angle. This would allow a cooler descent, and to slow the plane down, the entire wing and tail is designed to tilt providing drag, instead of the lift flaps produce.
- At roughly 40,000 feet, the outer tilting wings and tail would detach via the pilots, who could now fly the plane as though it were a standard small aircraft and land on nearly any runway using the lift of flaps.
It’s been over 10 years, why hasn’t Enterprise begun giving people a ride into space?
The designs were solid and the math was sound enough for the carrying aircraft, white knight two, and the plane, the Enterprise, based on his love of Star Trek, to be drafted and built in 2009. Once testing began, so did the problems. According to reports, engineering logistics and design collided. Branson was accused of secrecy, and apathy for safety components. He would not allow independent companies oversee their work, so rumors spread. Branson was unfazed. He continued his work completing 55 test flights, 20 successfully attached to the carrier aircraft, 30 free flights without the engines burning, and 4 flight where the engines burned successfully. The last flight in 2013 carried the plane up from over 45,000 feet to roughly 55,000 feet at a speed of over Mach 1 Then, tragedy.
What tragedy happened to the Enterprise?! Tune in next week to find out!