The U.S. State Department has given the builder of the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne permission to exchange technical information with its British partner in a new joint venture to develop a commercial suborbital spaceliner.
The State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls approved a request last week that paves the way for Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., to obtain what is known in U.S. export regulations as a Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA). Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne and the White Knight airplane that served as its first stage by carrying it to high altitude before releasing it and letting its rocket engines finish the trip to altitudes of 100 kilometers and above where space begins.
Virgin Galactic, part of British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is teaming up with Scaled Composites to form a new venture called The Spaceship Company, which will build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and the aircraft that will be used to help launch them.
The Spaceship Company will have a contract with Scaled Composites for research, development, testing and certification of a nine-person SpaceShipTwo design, and a White Knight Two mother ship to be called Eve.
Details about the new company were unveiled earlier at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture air show held July 25-31 in Oshkosh, Wis .
The new vehicle is expected to use SpaceShipOne’s re-entry concept and hybrid rocket motor design, which can be licensed through Paul Allen’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, backrolled the development of SpaceShipOne.
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said in a telephone interview Aug. 15 that the DDTC has approved a request for what is known in U.S. export regulations as a Technical Assistance Agreement.
Jonathan Peachey, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of finance and business development, said in an Aug. 16 response to an email inquiry that the State Department’s approval of a TAA paves the way for technical discussions to begin involving Scaled Composites LLC, Virgin Galactic LLC, and Virgin Management Ltd.
“It allows us to activate all the parts of the project,” Whitehorn said.
Whitehorn said last week’s clearance to begin the exchange of technical information was a process spread over five months’ time. The Directorate of Defense Trade Controls understood the commercial rather than the military nature of the project, he said, which bodes well in the long-term perhaps for other private-sector space efforts.
Among its duties, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls administers and enforces the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
“Putting it in ITAR terms … this is one small step for ITAR, one big leap for Virgin Galactic,” Whitehorn said.
“Most private space projects that have existed so far haven’t come across the issue of the . . . ITAR, and export regulations for these kind of technologies from the United States,” Whitehorn said. “We’re really the first people who have probably gone through a formal process of this nature and come through the other end of it. So I think that’s a good precedent. Exporting the technology to a third-party country would be another issue … and one that will have to be addressed in the future .”
Steve Geis, a member of the DDTC Response Team, which replies to e-mail inquiries, said in an e-mail response: “All licensing information is proprietary to the applicant. DDTC cannot provide such information to third parties.”
Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic and its partners can now take the next steps to start construction of SpaceShipTwo, hopefully, in the next eight months, and all of the things that lead up to building the vehicle.
The location to produce the fleet of rocket planes is very likely to be Mojave, Calif . “That’s where we expect to be in production,” Whitehorn said, although the takeoff site of Virgin Galactic’s public space trips is a different matter.
Given the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and growing encroachment on the desert around Mojave, Virgin Galactic may look for another home as an operational business site, Whitehorn said.
“We are already in discussion with a number of states in the United States,” Whitehorn said, as well as Mojave, Calif . Two launch sites are a possibility, but that is not a given at the moment, he noted.
“The thing that I find really heartening is the willingness on the part of the U.S. government to make sure that this fledgling industry does prosper in the private sector,” Whitehorn said, and not to “stifle the baby before it’s born.”
Whitehorn said that Virgin Galactic is “generally encouraged on all fronts at the moment.” Still ahead is some two and a half years of hard work in developing The Spaceship Company, he said.
At the Mojave locale, top action items will be shakeout testing of SpaceShipTwo and reaching a level of safety in vehicle operations. Launching the space tourism business is projected around 2008, Whitehorn said , although that date is not carved in stone.
The going rate for seats onboard Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceships are priced at $200,000 each.
“We have a significant level of deposits now … nearly $10 million worth,” Whitehorn said. Some people are paying the full price to be founders and some are putting down deposits to fly in the future, he said. “We’ll be in the position by the time we actually launch this business … I’m sure we would have sold out at least the first couple of years by the time we start flying.”
A full-scale mock-up of SpaceShipTwo is to be unveiled in the near future, but not this year, Whitehorn said.
“We’ll be keeping our light under a bushel [basket] for competitive reasons for some time,” Whitehorn said.