Sunday, December 14, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo takes a stroll

Late Friday afternoon, the Virgin Galactic Scaled Composites WhiteKnightTwo, named VMS Eve, was out and about doing low-speed taxi tests, as technicians tweaked the #2 and #3 engines (note the removed pylon access covers). According to media reports, the WhiteKnightTwo will be capable of carrying up to 34,700 pounds to an altitude of 50,000 feet, which would be the launch altitude for SpaceShipTwo. Although initially designed as the "mothership" for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, further uses of the aircraft include the possibility of launching unmanned satellites into earth orbit. VG president Will Whitehorn told (here) that such a launcher is being dubbed "LauncherOne". A solid rocket booster with a parachute stabilization system (such as used by AirLaunch LLC) could be launched from WhiteKnightTwo as high as 70,000, according to Whitehorn, speaking to Flight International at the 4th Appleton space conference at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory this past September.
In comments made to in October, Virgin's Sir Richard Branson said that he expected first flight of WK2 to take place in November, comments from Virgin Galactic sources indicate that the first flight could happen as soon as this coming week.
Much has been made by some non-aviation media sources regarding the apparent delays in the flight test program, leading to an almost defensive tone in some of Virgin Galactic's responses. When the mothership was first rolled out in September, first flight estimates of September were given to the media. The delays have thus raised questions. This is an unfortunate consequence of a clash of cultures: in the flight test world, schedules are dictated by technical and safety considerations. In the commercial business development world, customers and managers like to see aggressive schedules which are kept or beat. This is a new aircraft with a new model engine, and when testing such a combination, even the smallest issue that is discovered during the incremental test sequence can lead to delays. Those who are used to working in - and reporting about - flight test understand that patience is the watchword. Too bad the rest of the media doesn't get this.

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