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Virgin Galactic debuts WK2, announces major investment
By James Wynbrandt, EAA AirVenture Today
  

Photo by Michele Peterson
Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny and Sir Richard Branson announce Tuesday a business venture to further fund the WK2 program.

July 28, 2009 - Oshkosh, WisconsinIt was a busy and productive afternoon for the Virgin Galactic team and WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this afternoon.

With WK2 as the background on AeroShell Square, Virgin Galactic announced and signed a major investment deal just before WK2 made its first public demonstration flight-a circuit made carrying Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson on his first flight in the space-launch vehicle.

As Sir Richard alighted from WK2 he was asked how he felt about the flight: "Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! How did it look from down here?"

And the important question for any pilot was, "How does it fly?"

"It flies just beautifully," said Sir Richard. "The feel and handling is fantastic."

"You would be surprised an aircraft shaped like that can fly so beautifully," he continued. "One of the loveliest…It's wonderful!

"I could see all of you guys down here, and one day we'll be able to see the Earth very clearly from the ship."

Prior to the flight Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn began the proceedings by announcing that the company reached an agreement for Abu Dhabi-based investment group Aabar to buy a major stake in Virgin Galactic. That deal includes funds to develop a satellite launch capability for the system and the creation of a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

Whitehorn then introduced Sir Richard and Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny to sign the agreement.

Under the agreement's terms, Aabar will invest $280 million and take a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic, and will commit an additional $100 million to develop a satellite launch capability for WK2.

After the signing Al-Husseiny said Aabar was committed to investments that "provide a lot of benefits" for not only Aabar but also Abu Dhabi. Sir Richard spoke of the emirate's "incredible vision to bring Abu Dhabi into a country of the future."

Burt Rutan, whose Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, developed the launch system, then joined the pair on the stage.

But he explained he would keep his remarks briefs because due to a strong crosswind, WK2 would take off from Runway 27 instead of the 18-36 primary runway-and that would add considerably to taxiing time.

"I know they're itching to get going," Rutan quipped.

"The last time we were in hot air balloons, and we kept ending up in the sea," said Sir Richard, alluding to global circumnavigation efforts he previously funded and flew, "and I'm glad there's no water here."

But Sir Richard and the crowd enjoyed a good laugh when Rutan reminded him of the presence of nearby Lake Winnebago.

As Sir Richard boarded WK2, Whitehorn provided more details of the new agreement and plans for Virgin Galactic's civilian space flights.

"We're committed to a satellite launch system," Whitehorn said.

He noted that WK2 was designed to carry rocket-launch vehicles capable of putting into orbit satellites of up to 200 kilograms-and at much lower costs than current launch technologies-opening space to a new range of satellite applications.

The company's current funding, however, supports only its first objective, offering civilians suborbital flights. The Aabar investment will allow Virgin Galactic to begin developing its satellite launch capability.

"It's wonderful. Abu Dhabi has put their trust in us," said Sir Richard. "Their investment will enable us to speed up the program and be able to put satellites into space as well as people into space at a fraction of the cost that people have been able to put them up in the past-in a very environmentally friendly manner.

"They're going to build a beautiful spaceport in the Middle East, and they will have a spaceport there as well as a spaceport here in America, so altogether a day almost too untrue to be real. It's been great."

The price of the satellite launches will be less than $2 million, according to Whitehorn, and development of the system is expected to take three years.

The agreement also gives Aabar exclusive rights to space launches in the Middle East region from the planned Abu Dhabi launch complex, a facility not expected to become operative before 2014.

Whitehorn also reported Virgin Galactic has deposits for space flight tickets from more than 300 prospective civilian astronauts totaling $40 million.

SpaceShipTwo, which will be carried aloft by WK2 and released to rocket upward to altitudes of 110-130 kilometers, is scheduled for its first test fight this December; the first flight to the edge of space with paying passengers is expected within 24 months.

The twin boom/cabin WK2 will carry six passengers in its right cabin, and will carry NOAA scientific instruments in the left cabin.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard seems confident in the future of his space enterprise.

"Look, I never actually think about the investments I do. I think about creating things I can be proud of, and I think generally if you can create something you can be proud of, it's likely to be successful, and I think there are so many millions and millions of people that would love the chance to go into space, and it needed private enterprise to make that possible."

He continued, "I just had the most privileged voyage. I'm very lucky to be the first person to go up in it and experience this wonderful new machine, magnificent machine. And to be the first of many, many voyages.

"One day it will be doing its job of taking the spaceship up and sending it up into space."

And to think it started partly from the influence of EAA, AirVenture, and the Oshkosh experience.

"Oshkosh is the best air show in the world, and it's wonderful to be here," Sir Richard said.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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