MCAD Tech News #142

6 Apr, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News

Space for the Rest of Us

Burt Rutan and fellow visionaries hope
to make suborbital tourism possible by 2007

In February, I attended the SolidWorks World 2005 user conference in Orlando, Florida. What a welcome relief from winter that conference was! Each of the three days began with a keynote presentation by a prominent speaker on some aspect of 3D design.

Burt Rutan (left) and author Jeff Rowe the night before Rutan delivered his SolidWorks World 2005 keynote presentation on the future of privatized space flight.
The presentation for the second day, titled "Space for the Rest of Us," was given by Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites. He is the designer of SpaceShipOne, the first manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet — 62 miles, or 100 kilometers — twice within two weeks to claim the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

For Rutan's group, which includes Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson, this exercise was a research program to validate private space flight capability. He said the research was justified by the spirits of exploration and fun. Inspired by Disney many years ago, Rutan's small design team used a variety of CAD applications, including Ashlar-Vellum Cobalt, SolidWorks and COSMOSWorks, to design and engineer SpaceShipOne and its shuttle/launch vehicle, White Knight.

He gave an excellent presentation at SolidWorks World on what he hopes will come to pass with privately funded space tourism and travel. For it to work, the craft must be reusable and the travel must be affordable and safe. Some of the events and future implications surrounding SpaceShipOne are as interesting as the craft and the feat itself.

The Story Behind the Prize
On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne rocketed into history, becoming the first private, manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within a 14-day period. In addition to meeting the altitude requirement to win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, pilot Brian Binnie also broke the August 22, 1963, record set by Joseph A. Walker, who flew the X-15 to an unofficial world altitude record of 354,200 feet. Brian Binnie's SpaceShipOne flight carried him all the way to 367,442 feet, or 69.6 miles above the Earth's surface, a suborbital altitude.

The Ansari X-Prize was founded in 1996 and modeled after the Orteg Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne flight was timed (not unintentionally) to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

Technology Licensed Before Prize Awarded
With a showing of true faith and confidence, in late September, about a week prior to the historic second flight of SpaceShipOne, Richard Branson announced that Virgin Group had entered into an agreement to license the technology to develop the world's first privately funded spaceships dedicated to carrying commercial passengers on space flights. The technology, owned by the Paul Allen company MAV (Mojave Aerospace Ventures), was originally developed to fulfill Allen's vision of building the world's first privately funded, reusable space vehicle — SpaceShipOne.

The licensing deal with MAV could be worth as much as $21.5 million over the next 15 years, depending on the number of spaceships built by Virgin. Virgin has formed Virgin Galactic, a new company that is expected to be the world's first commercial space tourism operator.

If everything goes according to plan, Virgin Galactic will open for business this year and, subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals, begin operating flights in 2007. It is expected that about $100 million will be invested in developing the spaceships and ground infrastructure required to operate a suborbital space tourism business.

Over five years, Virgin hopes to produce around 3,000 astronauts. The price per seat on each flight, which will include at least three days of preflight training, is expected to start around $190,000. Virgin will reinvest the proceeds in a new generation of vehicles for further space ventures. To date, the cheapest space-tourism experiences in government-built and taxpayer-funded spaceships cost more than $15 million per seat.

Virgin Galactic is expected to formally commence the contractual and design phase of the project and begin construction of the first spaceship, the VSS Enterprise, sometime this year.

Virgin Galactic has become possible because of the vision of Paul Allen, who funded the person who virtually everyone agrees is the world's greatest contemporary aviation designer: Burt Rutan. Rutan executed the vision, going back to basics and carrying out a number of crucial tasks that made Virgin Galactic and suborbital space tourism possible — all in a timely, simple and cost-effective manner.

Author's Note: For reasons that should be obvious, not a lot of technical details are available on the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. However, I will elaborate more on some of the design and engineering aspects of the two vehicles in an upcoming edition of Cadalyst's MCAD Tech News.