Golden, Colo.– A passenger-carrying suborbital spaceliner and the airplane that will serve as its first stage are starting to take shape on the factory floors at Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif.

Work on the SpaceShipTwo prototype is moving forward, as is the fabrication of the White Knight 2 mothership, and at this point spaceline operator Virgin Galactic is eyeing late 2009 as the beginning of commercial flights with paying customers.

Scaled Composites is the firm led by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose team designed and built SpaceShipOne, the vehicle that made a trio of piloted suborbital flights in 2004, snagging the $10 million Ansari X Prize by completing back-to-back suborbital hops within a two-week time period.

When Scaled Composites developed SpaceShipOne, the company viewed it as Tier 1 of an effort whose next step, Tier 1b, would be manufacturing a fleet of space planes to carry commercial passengers on suborbital trips into space.

In July 2005, Rutan and U.K. billionaire Sir Richard Branson announced they had signed an agreement to form The Spaceship Co. , to be jointly owned by Virgin and Scaled Composites. The new aerospace production group was created to manufacture launch aircraft, spaceships and support equipment and market them to spaceline operators, including Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which placed orders for five spaceships and two launch aircraft with options on additional systems. Branson’s order secured the exclusive use of the systems for the initial 18 months of commercial passenger operations.

SpaceShipTwo will be carried to launch altitude by the aircraft White Knight 2, which will release the space vehicle for launch at an altitude of 1,828.8 meters . The space vehicle is being built to seat six passengers and two pilots. The price to buy a ticket now is $200,000, which covers pre-training, the suborbital trip to an altitude of 109.4 kilometers and post-landing frivolity.

At present, Virgin Galactic has $20 million in deposits, said Will Whitehorn, the company’s president. “We just surpassed the 200-customer level in terms of people who have actually made a financial commitment, put their money down and signed their contracts,” Whitehorn said.

Space travel registrations on the Virgin Galactic Internet Web site, number about 82,000 expressions of interest, Whitehorn said. “Those registrations are genuine … with quite a number prepared to sign in the next three or four years. But they do want to see a finished spaceship before they are prepared to commit. I don’t blame them for that. We’re hoping to have a working spaceship that’s actually commencing spaceflight in its test mode by the middle of 2008.”

Whitehorn said m ore than 100 test flights are scheduled to give spaceliner operations a good shakeout. He estimated the first commercial flights will occur by the end of 2009 and possibly sooner if the planned trial runs prove to be trouble-free.

Whitehorn said that flight tests of the SpaceShipTwo/White Knight 2 will take place out of the inland spaceport at Mojave, Calif. “I imagine even the early flying program of commercial flights in late 2009 will be from Mojave,” he said.

After those initial flights, he said the company also plans to use New Mexico’s Spaceport America, especially as more facilities are added there around 2010. At least “that’s the scenario we’re working on at the moment,” Whitehorn said.

Mojave test program

In June 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation granted the Mojave Airport a launch site operator license — making it the first inland spaceport on the books.

“The spaceport is ready when they are,” said Stuart Witt, Mojave Airport and spaceport manager. “Our new 12,500 foot by 200 foot [3,810 meter by 61 meter] runway is complete. Security systems are complete or being installed. Our communication and access systems are complete. New construction is under way at several locations. Our new water system is scheduled for installation this year,” he said .

For his part, Rutan is tight-lipped regarding Scaled Composites’ progress building SpaceShipTwo and the super-jumbo White Knight 2 carrier spacecraft. A few joint releases between Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have been issued in the past, but no schedule information.

“Like our other research programs we generally do not provide information until the prototypes are ready to fly,” Rutan told Space News. “It is likely that when we roll out the prototype, SpaceShipTwo, we will provide an estimate for the schedule of the production spaceships so the public can have a general idea of when the commercial spaceline flights might begin,” he added.

“Have patience … this is a very big program,” he said, adding that commercial systems for routine public flight are a lot more difficult than winning the X Prize.

“Everybody wants to know when we’re going to be flying … and details about the schedule. But I don’t want to put the pressure on Scaled to perform to an artificial schedule. We’ve asked them to deliver the best possible spaceship. I haven’t told him when he should deliver it,” said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic’s chief operating officer.

“There’s a lot of testing built into the program at this stage. It is appropriate as a development program to say things are going ahead exceptionally well … and we’re proceeding along with the schedule. I’m very happy with the progress to date,” Tai said.

Spaceport America

Meanwhile, phased work on New Mexico’s Spaceport America has begun. The facilities will be located 48.3 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences, N.M. and 72.4 kilometers north of Las Cruces, N.M.. This site was picked for its low-population density, uncongested airspace and high elevation.

In December 2005, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Branson, chairman of the Virgin Companies, announced that Virgin Galactic would locate its world headquarters and mission control operations in New Mexico.

Spaceport America’s construction is to progress in two phases. Phase 1 is the programming stage, which includes the construction of related infrastructure such as roads, utilities, etc. Phase 2 will involve the full-fledged design of the spaceport itself.

“The critical path here is the environmental impact statement and [spaceport] license from the Federal Aviation Administration,” said Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state’s Cabinet Secretary of Economic Development.

“All is going okay … taking a little longer than expected, as should be expected,” Homans said. Extra effort is being taken to work with state, county and private stakeholders in order to design and build the first “purpose built” spaceport.

“We’re looking at a 20-mile (32.2 kilometer) radius around the spaceport,” Homans said, and making the facility as environmentally sensitive to area interests is a top priority. A draft environmental impact statement for the spaceport should be completed in April or May, he said.

Tenants and lease holders

“We would like to have the [spaceport] license by the end of this year or the very beginning of 2008,” Homans added. Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic are also negotiating the details of a legally binding term sheet that will be developed into a formal and legal lease agreement, Homans said .

The term sheet begins to define the operational structure of Spaceport America, as well the relationship and responsibilities between the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the facility’s tenants and lease holders.

“It also reflects a structure and a process to establish user fees … the beginning of a formula to do that. We want to develop something that sets a precedent and a template for other tenants in the future,” Homans said. The other thing it does, he said, is set prices for the exclusive facilities Virgin Galactic will be using, as well costs associated for them to utilize common Spaceport America amenities.

To prepare for the start of operations, Spaceport America is expected to spend between $150 million and $200 million, but enhancements would push the facility to becoming a $225 million site in the future, Homans said.

“It’s all uncharted territory,” Homans stated. “The space tourism piece is just the very beginning of where all this is headed … and driving this in a very large way is Virgin Galactic.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...