Fly Me to a Flying Suborbital Space Platform…

Today, Virgin Galactic unveiled their new spacecraft: the WhiteKnightTwo, christened “Eve” in honor of company founder Sir Richard Branson’s mother. Eve is the ferry craft that will deliver SpaceShipTwo and its passengers and payloads into space. Or at least to very high altitudes.

WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.
WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.

Naturally, I think this is damn cool. I doubt that I’ll ever get to fly on SpaceShipTwo myself (I’ll never have nearly enough money to afford it) but forays into space travel always make me excited. When I was a kid I was pretty obsessed with the idea. I had a toy lunar module that you could turn on and that would scoot across the floor with a loud whirring noise. I still recall the way my heart thudded when I watched the space shuttle Enterprise fling itself off of the ferry aircraft, a modified 747. And I watched several of Enterprise‘s test flights (Enterprise was never meant for actual space flight, of course). And I also watched the live coverage of Columbia‘s first flight. During one of these test launches, I remember the announcer practically screaming with excitement: “And there’s the launch of AMERICA’S FIRST SPACE SHUTTLE!” Of course, nowadays, space shuttle launches are barely noted in the news media. I built models of the space shuttle, and even today looking at pictures of the shuttle fills me with childhood nostalgia.

Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..
Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..

From what I can tell — because I haven’t really kept close track of these things since I was a kid — the SpaceShipTwo passenger vehicle itself has not yet actually been built. But Eve is supposed to tug SpaceShipTwo into orbit, sort of like how the modified 747 carried Enterprise into its test flights.

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.
Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.

See how SpaceShipTwo is slung between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo?

I’m not sure how long it will be until SpaceShipTwo is ready to start flying people into space. Virgin Galactic plans on being the first company to offer commercial space passenger flights. I do hope that other companies will follow suit, and that NASA keeps up its scientific and research missions as well. I’m a big believer in the necessity of manned space missions, and I’m pretty excited about NASA’s Project Constellation. I think we’re centuries away from interstellar travel or extraplanetary colonization, but I think that, Charles Stross aside, we, as a species, will figure out how to do it.

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