White Knight needed

Sir Richard Branson’s never been shy of publicity, and it’s been hard to avoid his familiar grin this week at the roll-out of the first major piece of Virgin Galactic hardware, the ‘mothership’ that will launch the SpaceShipTwo craft onto its journey beyond the atmosphere. The first WhiteKnightTwo carrier craft, named Eve after Branson’s mother, was an impressive site on the tarmac in the Mojave desert, and the man who is synonymous with the Virgin brand looked justifiably proud of his new piece of kit.

In engineering terms, it’s certainly impressive. Looking like nothing else in the air with its twin fuselages linked by a single wing, it’s a landmark piece of aeronautical engineering: the largest all-composite aircraft ever built. The high strength and low weight of its carbon fibre-reinforced body allows it to be relatively small and sleek, belying its arduous role; this is surely the best-looking heavy lifting vehicle ever produced. And its 43m (140ft) wing spar is the longest single composite aviation component ever produced.

Branson and Virgin Galactic’s engineering guru, X-Prize winner Bert Rutan, are also keen to promote WhiteKnightTwo’s environmental credentials. Its four Pratt & Whitney engines combine with its low weight to make it ‘a mould-breaker in carbon efficiency and the epitome of 21st century aerospace design and technology’, the company claims.

While the focus of attention is of course on the space tourism that the aircraft will facilitate, both Virgin and Rutan are keen to spotlight other, less frivolous, applications. WhiteKnightTwo can lift a weight 30 percent greater than a fully-crewed SpaceShipTwo, and is also capable of astronaut training under positive and zero gravity conditions. Rutan believes this means it will be ‘developed and sold for a variety of launch applications beyond the requirements of our launch customer’, and Virgin’s publicity material makes a point of mentioning the ‘science packages and payload’ that SpaceShipTwo will be capable of carrying.

All of which makes a good job of spinning a toy for the rich as a tool for the advancement of mankind. There’s no getting away from it: the driving force for this innovation is space tourism, and while Branson can talk about ‘democratising space’ all he likes, it’s a funny sort of democracy that’s only open to people who can write a cheque for $100,000.

But money has always been a good spur to innovation, and Virgin Galactic already has over 100 takers for its suborbital pleasure cruises. What’s important here is the innovation, and it’s there that we take issue with Branson. Obviously, this is Rutan’s ship, Rutan’s design, and his know-how that won him the prize for first civilian craft into space, and the subsequent contract. But we can’t help thinking it’s a shame that Branson, who when it suits him is keen to cast himself as a proud Brit, didn’t use his clout to get some British involvement in the project. Even if British companies weren’t involved in building WhiteKnightTwo and its payload, surely he could have ensured that British engineering students could be involved in the project, for example?

There’s a wealth of expertise in composite technology in the UK, not to mention boundless interest in the Virgin Galactic project. There’s no doubt that our engineers could have contributed significantly; and that the project could have contributed to our engineering base. Whenever Branson talks about his desire to contribute to the UK and give something back to society, we’re going to be thinking of the great chance he had with Virgin Galactic. And how he fluffed it.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor