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Wed, Jan 23, 2008

Virgin Galactic Unveils Design For SpaceShipTwo, White Knight Two

Four-Engined Mothership Designed To Hoist Unmanned Payloads, As Well

At a flashy press event in New York Wednesday, Virgin Galactic unveiled the design of its new space launch system based on the X Prize-winning technology of SpaceShipOne, which successfully flew into space for the third time in October 2004 and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The construction of the White Knight Two (WK2) mothership, or carrier aircraft, is now very close to completion at Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA and is expected to begin flight testing in the summer of 2008. Virgin says WK2 is the world's largest, all carbon composite aircraft; it has a unique high altitude lift capacity, capable of launching SpaceShipTwo and its eight astronauts into sub-orbital space flight.

"Burt [Rutan] has been very reluctant to let anyone in to his factory, especially me, so having seen the footage I am enormously relieved that he has indeed been hard at work building our spaceships for the past two years," quipped Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson. "2008 really will be the Year of the Spaceship."

The WK2 mothership is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, which are amongst the most powerful, economic and efficient engines available. Virgin notes its space launch system is also "environmentally benign," an allusion to the company's efforts to offset the carbon impact of the program.

Notably, the WK2 mothership has also been designed to be capable of lifting other payload and launching it into space. Both Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic believe the system has sufficient lifting capability to launch unmanned vehicles designed to carry small satellites and other scientific payload into low earth orbit.

While the first priority for Virgin Galactic is developing the market for human spaceflight, the company is already assessing the potential for unmanned launch capability.

"If our new system could carry only people into space, that would be enough for me, because of the transforming effect it will have on the thousands who will travel with us," said Branson. "It is quite clear from every astronaut that I've ever spoken to -- including Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill -- that seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one to wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet's mass that we inhabit, and to the importance of protecting the Earth."

Meanwhile, Virgin states SpaceShipTwo is now nearly 60% complete. It incorporates both the lessons learned from the SpaceShipOne program and the market research conducted by Virgin Galactic into the requirements future astronauts have for their space flight experience (space enthusiasts may also note SpaceShipTwo bears an uncanny resemblance to the USAF X-20 'Dynasoar' program of the 1960s, a forerunner to today's space shuttle -- Ed.) Virgin notes SS2 also has built-in flexibility to adapt to future requirements for other scientific and commercial applications.

While the two vehicles comprising the space launch system have been under construction, Virgin Galactic says its cadre of future astronauts has continued to grow strongly to well in excess of 200 individuals, with around 85,000 registrations of interest to fly. The deposit base now exceeds $30 million, representing more than $45 million of future income to the fledgling spaceline.

Astronaut orientation for spaceflight is progressing well and already 80 of SpaceShipTwo's first passengers have been through medical assessment and centrifuge training at the NASTAR facility in Philadelphia. During their G-Force acclimatization program, the participants were spun to 3.5GZ (head to toe) and 6GX (front to back) to simulate the actual flight profile of SpaceShipTwo during a 110km (68 miles) apogee sub-orbital space flight.

FMI: www.virgingalactic.com, www.scaled.com

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