How Virgin Galactic Works

History of Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson with a model of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo
Sir Richard Branson with a model of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo
Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic

On June 21, 2004, pilot Mike Melville flew SpaceShipOne (SS1) on the first private manned spaceflight. On Sept. 27, 2004, Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan announced plans to build the first commercial spacecraft. Within a week, Melville and another pilot flew SS1 on the qualifying flights for the Ansari X Prize. Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, won the X Prize and set the stage for Virgin Galactic.  

Virgin Galactic has signed contracts with Scaled Composites to design and build SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and WhiteKnightTwo (WK2). It has also joined up with Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures to license SS1's technology (Allen was co-founder of Microsoft, and his company owns and funded the development of SS1), and the state of New Mexico to build a spaceport hub for Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic began operations in 2005, setting to work on a fleet of five SS2s and two WK2s -- the company plans to invest up to $250 million to develop the space tourism industry. In December 2005, Virgin Galactic announced that it had its first 100 passengers, and by early 2008 it had received more than $31 million in deposits from prospective passengers.

Although Virgin Galactic had originally planned to test the spacecraft in early 2008 and begin commercial flights in 2009, an accident at Scaled Composites in July 2007 disrupted this schedule. In the nonfiring test of the flow of oxidizer in the rocket engine, an explosion killed three technicians and injured three other workers [source: USA Today]. 

Despite the incident, Virgin Galactic unveiled its plans for SS2 and WK2 in January 2008 and intends to order five more spacecraft. Commercial operations are planned for sometime after 2010, starting with one flight per week and building up to one or two flights a day. The company hopes to turn a profit within five years after flights begin. The operations of Virgin Galactic will fall under regulation of the FAA and the New Mexico Space Authority.