Last updated: 02:00 PM ET, Tue December 08 2015

Meet Virgin Galactic’s 747 Rocket Launcher

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | December 08, 2015

Meet Virgin Galactic’s 747 Rocket Launcher

PHOTO: The Launcher One 747. (Photos via Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson was on hand to unveil the company’s “Launcher One” carrier aircraft in San Antonio, TX this week. The retired Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 — aptly named Cosmic Girl — has been modified to carry rockets aloft and then drop them for launch into space.

The concept sounds a bit astronomical, but NASA has plenty of experience with this launch method, and Virgin claims it’s a cheap way to get small satellites into orbit. Launcher One was first unveiled in 2012, with plans to use the White Knight Two aircraft as the satellite drop vehicle.

PHOTO: Space Ship Two under construction.

White Knight Two will remain the carrier vehicle for Space Ship Two, Serial Number Two —Virgin Galactic’s commercial space tourism vehicle.

That program suffered a major setback on Halloween 2014, when the first version of Space Ship Two broke up shortly after release for its fourth powered test flight. The NTSB discovered one of the pilots, Michael Alsbury mistakenly rotated the tail, creating too much drag. Alsbury was killed while the second pilot, Peter Siebold, survived.

Virgin Galactic says Launcher One will hold commercial payloads weighing up to 200 kilograms (441 pounds) into a sun synchronous orbit at a price of under $10 million. The rocket will be mounted under Cosmic Girl’s left wing, where it will be carried to cruising altitude. From there it will be released and the rocket will ignite and blast into orbit.

“Air launch enables us to provide rapid, responsive service to our satellite customers on a schedule set by their business and operational needs, rather than the constraints of national launch ranges,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO. “Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices.”

Throughout its history, the 747 has been used for a variety of roles, from carrying airline passengers to piggybacking the Space Shuttle, as a cargo workhorse, and even as a parts carrier for other planes. Over 1,500 have been built, though its production days are numbered. Many airlines have chosen to outfit their fleets with more efficient twin-engine planes like the 777.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said, “The Boeing 747 has a very special place in my heart: we began service on my first airline, Virgin Atlantic, with just one leased 747. I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space. I’m absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family — and truly live up to her name!”

PHOTO: White Knight Two.

But the company still has a long way to go before it can consider itself a success — much of the push for the endeavor has come from Branson’s budget and charisma, with little actual flying.

Its commercial space tourism business has been delayed by years, though the list of those who have made deposits for a ride numbers into the hundreds.

In 2005, the company ordered five Space Ship Twos, and at this point, not even one is airworthy. In 2009, Branson predicted the first commercial flights within 18 months, yet there have only been three successful test flights, with zero paying passengers. Testing and certification completion remains years away, with approval to carry passengers even further into the future. 


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