VSS Enterprise. Even the name conjures thoughts of space flight, the future and perhaps -- for a lucky and well to-do passenger -- a boarding pass.
That's the name given to the very first commercial space ship that will take flight in two years, courtesy of Virgin Galactic. The initial rollout of the first SpaceShipTwo craft (that's the model name for the Enterprise) took place recently in the Mohave Desert, with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Virgin founder Richard Branson smashing a celebratory bottle of champagne to unveil it to the world.
The reveal was the first peek at the full liveried VSS Enterprise. It's built by Scaled Composites, the company owned by explorer and entrepreneur Burt Rutan, the man who won the X Prize in 2004 when his SpaceShipOne went into space twice within two weeks to win a $1 million prize.
Following that feat, Virgin Galactic was formed along with the Abu Dhabi government as a true commercial space concern using Rutan's crafts. The first part of VG's plan is to offer "sub-orbital" flight into space. What does "sub-orbital" mean? Achieving an altitude of over 62 miles, or 100 km.
While there is some debate over where "space" starts in terms of altitude, the Virgin flight will take passengers high enough to see the curvature of the earth. For a point of comparison, the US military and NASA offer astronaut wings to those who travel above 50 miles over the earth's surface, so this bests that by a good margin.
What's so special about it?
"This will be a trip like no other," said Branson earlier this year. "It will give those who travel with us a unique and life-changing experience."
What does a trip on the VSS Enterprise get you? One hell of a ride, five minutes of weightlessness and the ability to see the curvature of the earth.
The real brilliance of the experience, though, isn't just the ability to hang out in space for a few minutes. It's the novel design of the entire craft -- or, in reality, the two crafts that launch passengers into space.
When the "mothership," aka "VMS Eve" an example of the WhiteKnightTwo craft, takes off, it does so like a traditional airplane. The smaller SpaceShipTwo is cradled in between its fuselages. At about 50,000 feet, the VSS Enterprise takes over: a rocket propels the spaceship and in a matter of seconds, a whole lot of distance is placed between the passengers and the earth below. Eventually it hits an altitude of over 62 miles above the earth, where passengers can float and move around the cabin.
In space and unencumbered by gravity, the craft follows its own trajectory (like that of a bullet) but pilots can fire small thrust rockets to get it on a specific course.
Upon re-entry to earth, the Enterprise will "feather" its wings in the up position to travel through earth's atmosphere in a more casual manner (as opposed to having to pilot it at a specific angle and speed). Once below 50,000 feet, the wings will return to a glider position and the craft can land like a normal airplane. That simple design idea by Burt Rutan and his team makes the spaceship unlike no other and, according to Virgin Galactic, will create a much more repeatable, safer flying environment.
If you're looking to go for a ride, get your $200,000 handy and get in line. There are already over 300 people who have put down a $20,000 refundable deposit to reserve their space.
- Virgin Galactic