Monday, July 28, 2008

Virgin Galactic Rolls Out VMS Eve

As I was shooting for Flight International magazine and, my first images of the huge plane can be seen over at one of their blogs.

In a dramatically staged ceremony hosted by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites this morning, the new White Knight Two, now called VMS Eve, after Sir Richard Branson's mother, was first displayed to invited members of the media, and then the ceremony was repeated for about 200 people who've reserved seats on the world's first commercial spaceship.

The event was held inside Scaled Composites Mojave headquarters hangar, and began with several welcoming comments, including those from Virgin America CEO David Cush and Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn. The press were seated facing a long white curtain covering the hangar doors, which were then opened and the curtain dropped to reveal the White Knight Two sitting just outside in the bright morning sun, with Scaled's Burt Rutan and Virgin's Sir Richard Branson hanging out of the pilots' windows.

While the photographers were let loose to shoot the plane, Branson and Rutan made their way inside to speak to the media, Burt apologizing as he turned his back to his audience, stating that he just couldn't help looking at the beautiful craft.

It was originally thought that the first White Knight Two aircraft (the term refers to the type of aircraft, with each individual one carrying a unique name, such as VMS Eve - VMS stands for "Virgin Mother Ship") was to be named The Spirit of Steve Fossett in memory of the record-setter, who was also a good friend of Sir Richard's, and the Virgin founder was even quoted in this by the San Francisco Sentinel. In the end, though, the pioneering aircraft was named after Sir Richard's mother, Eve (right. He said, "If you're going to build a mothership, it's only right that you should name it after your mother!" Beyond just being the namesake of the first WK2, however, Eve Branson is the real-life "Galactic Girl", the flying, space-helmeted gal that adorns the nose of WK2, and who will also appear on all the SpaceShipTwos.

For the christening ceremony, Sir Richard and Mum walked to the starboard boom (the WK2 aircraft will all be piloted from this location, the port boom will carry passengers in the production aircraft; the windows in Eve, which is considered a flight test prototype, are merely black stickers). Sir Richard, somewhat excited by the goings on, seemed to pop the cork a bit prematurely, spraying himself, Mum, and the gathered photographers, before turning the champaigne towards the plane.

WK2 is powered by four 7,000-lb thrust Pratt & Whitney PW308A turbofan engines, a spare of which was on display during the ceremony. The original White Knight used two surplus 3,000-lb thrust GE J85 engines which in a former life powered an Air Force T-38 Talon, and which had a notorious lack of reliability. During his talk, Burt made the point of noting that WK2 uses fully certificated engines which will bring a new level of reliabilty to the program.

SpaceShipTwo, which is said to be 60% complete, was present at the ceremony, as well, sitting tall under black wraps next to the press seating area. More than one journalist, I'm sure, wanted to take a peak underneith, but the world will have to wait another nine months for its rollout ceremony. A placard on the shroud read "Coming soon to a spaceport near you".

Many of the out-of-town journalists at today's ceremony were flown up from LAX by Virgin America (VA) on one of their newest Airbus A-320s, christened my other ride's a spaceship. The close connection between VA and VG was mentioned repeatedly, and goes beyond corporate management. VA "Elevate" frequent flyers who have earned enough miles will be able to compete for a seat on a VG launch. In addition, the companies have established an "exchange program" inwhich a number of VA pilots, including Rob Bindle and Rich Gancaster who flew the A-320 today, will be cross trained to fly WK2 and SS2.

No comments: