Virgin Galactic’s double fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, configured in a “captive carry” mode passes over the audience as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and founder/ owner of Virgin Galactic Sir Richard Branson address a crowd of about six hundred people during the runway dedication ceremony last Thursday at Spaceport America, in Upham, southeast of Truth or Consequences, N.M. Credits USAG Fort Bliss via Flickr

Virgin Universe: from the ground to the atmosphere’s edge.

Let's discover the story of one of the craziest and most enterprising businessmen in history able to build the empire called Virgin Group.

Imagine being a multi-billionaire entrepreneur, to found over 400 activities including the most famous gym corporation, clothes brands, fuel pumps, publishing houses, record companies, and even a Formula 1 team, all these things under the same brand, Virgin Group. All these marks have one feature in common: they are all linked to activities on Earth.

All that remains for Richard Branson (our today’s main character) to do is to go further in an enterprise to conquer the skies and the cosmos. With these introductions Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic make their appearance carving out a space for the race to Earth Orbit for private companies.

Richard Branson with the Virgin company logo. Photo Credits CNBC
Richard Branson with the Virgin company logo. Credits: CNBC

The engine starts up.

Our story begins in 2004 when the company was founded. In the first years of this project, Virgin Galactic developed some concepts for building its future, with a series of high-cost ideas.

In late 2004, an opportunity presented itself at Virgin’s door: a competition that would allow for an adequate budget to start the engines of the company. The Ansari X Prize was an award of $10 million to the first non-government organization that flew people into space past the Kármán line, an imaginary line placed at a height of 100 km (330,000 ft) above sea level, which conventionally marks the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, using a reusable spacecraft.


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The eternal doubt

To carry out this ambitious project the keystone was winning the X Prize. However, space and cheap do not go well together in the same sentence, so it was immediately clear that a normal rocket cannot be used.

What else flies? A plane. Nevertheless, even the most powerful planes do not reach the altitudes of the atmospheric edge, and so, at this point, it was necessary to design something never attempted before, building a new vehicle, a hybrid between plane and rocket capable of combining the best of both worlds and opening the wings towards cheap and accessible space tourism.

Launched from its White Knight mothership, the rocket-powered SpaceShipOne and its pilot ascended just beyond the atmosphere, arced through space (but not into orbit), then glided safely back to Earth. The flight lasted 24 minutes, with 3 minutes of weightlessness. On view in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Credits - Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum via Flickr
Launched from its White Knight mothership, the rocket-powered SpaceShipOne and its pilot ascended just beyond the atmosphere. Credits: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum via Flickr

Fly like a bird, Scream like a demon.

To accomplish this objective, the company developed SpaceShipOne, a masterpiece of engineering. Academically it is an experimental sub-orbital spaceplane equipped with a hybrid rocket motor.

It was developed by Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s aeronautical company, as part of its Tier One program, without government funding. On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne made its first space flight and on Oct. 4 of the same year, it won the wanted ten-million-dollar Ansari X prize, for reaching an altitude of 100 km twice in two weeks carrying the equivalent of three people on board.

Launched from its White Knight mothership, the rocket-powered SpaceShipOne and its pilot ascended just beyond the atmosphere, arced through space (but not into orbit), then glided safely back to Earth. The flight lasted 24 minutes, with 3 minutes of weightlessness. On view in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Credits - Nama Reelnam via Flickr
After the separation, the SpaceShip glided safely back to Earth. The flight lasted 24 minutes, with 3 minutes of weightlessness. Credits: Nama Reelnam via Flickr

The SpaceShipOne was registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (also known by the acronym FAA) as a glider since for most of the time it was in the air without using any type of thrust from the engine.


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Birth of another company

After the win of the most wanted prize, the project acquires an enormous boost: the Spaceship Company was born. Founded by Burt Rutan and Richard Branson in 2005, it was jointly owned by Virgin Group (70%) and Scaled Composites (30%) until 2012 when Virgin Galactic became the sole owner. 

At this point, the company needed a house. This special place was the Desert of New Mexico, where on 17 Oct. 2011, Richard Branson found the “Spaceport America”, the first space airport in history, designed by the British architect Norman Foster.

Aerial view of the Gateway to Space facing west at Spaceport America's first private pilot Fly-In on February 14, 2015. Image courtesy of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. Credits Spaceport America via Flickr
Aerial view of the Gateway to Space facing west at Spaceport America’s first private pilot Fly-In on February 14, 2015. Credits Spaceport America via Flickr

The honor of a white knight

The concept that Richard Branson wanted to rule the tourist economy was crazy, as crazy as SpaceShipTwo, the direct heir of SpaceShipOne.

In 2006, Richard Branson presented a passenger cabin model of the SpaceShipTwo shuttle at the NextFest exhibition held at the Javits Convention Center in New York. The spaceplane was officially shown to the public for the first time on Dec. 7, 2009, at the spaceport in the Mojave Desert in California.

The SpaceShipTwo shuttle is carried up to the upper atmosphere by the main aircraft, the White Knight Two, from which it detaches to be propelled by its rocket engine into space, beyond the Kármán line and from which it will glide back with the engine off for a conventional landing like its ancestor spaceship one.

Virgin Galactic’s double fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, configured in a “captive carry” mode passes over the audience as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and founder/ owner of Virgin Galactic Sir Richard Branson address a crowd of about six hundred people during the runway dedication ceremony last Thursday at Spaceport America, in Upham, southeast of Truth or Consequences, N.M. Credits USAG Fort Bliss via Flickr
Virgin Galactic’s double fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, configured in a “captive carry” mode Credits: USAG Fort Bliss via Flickr

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Engineering, rocket science…and lots of coffee

The blueprint of the spaceship was insane, as mentioned before it was developed on Spaceship One by Burt Rutan, and it has a maximum capacity of eight occupants: six passengers and two pilots. The shuttle reaches 4200 km/h powered by a single hybrid rocket engine, the RocketMotorTwo, which uses nitrous oxide as an oxidizer and a rubber-based compound as solid fuel, basically like a firecracker.

The course of the flight involves the release from the mother aircraft at an altitude of 15.200m and acceleration to supersonic speed in less than eight seconds. After 70 seconds, the rocket engine shuts down, and the shuttle continues to coast up to maximum altitude. The cabin measures 3.66m in length and has a diameter of 2.28m.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its t hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis. This photo was taken from a remote camera located at top of the ships' tail. Credits Virgin Galactic via Flickr
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Credits: Virgin Galactic via Flickr

The first official flight took off on Jul. 11, 2021, was managed by the VSS Unity 22, and it reached an altitude of 86 km (53 miles). This was a very special flight not only because was the debut of the commercial era of the company but also because Richard Branson itself went on board the spaceship experiencing first-hand the dream he built over many years of effort.

Dreaming the orbit

After years, the company was finally able to get into space, but only for a few seconds and only for humans.

What if we want to put something higher and permanent like a small satellite? We need a new company! Virgin Orbits was founded on Mar. 2, 2017, and it’s based in Long Beach, California. We already mentioned that the Virgin Group owns a very high number of brands, and among these, there was also an airplane company, Virgin Atlantic: the result was a very large availability of planes.

The Boeing 747, for example, was employed from 2001 to 2015 for passenger transport, and it was then purchased by Virgin Galactic to be used, after an appropriate modification, as a mother ship for the launch of the LauncherOne space rockets, a small 2-stage rocket equipped with a liquid rocket engine capable of carrying a payload of 400 kg (smallsat) in a sun-synchronous orbit.

Virgin Galactic Boeing 747-41R (32745/1287) N744VG "Cosmic Girl" Arrives back at Long Beach Airport (LGB/KLGB) as she is captured on short final to Rwy 30 inbound from Mojave Air and Space Port (MHV/KMHV). Credits Michael Carter via Flickr
Virgin Galactic Boeing 747-41R (32745/1287) N744VG “Cosmic Girl” Arrives back at Long Beach Airport. Credits: Michael Carter via Flickr

With a similar concept to the White Knight and SpaceShip two, Cosmic Girl (the name of the Boeing 747) lifts off carrying LauncherOne under its wing. In this way, the aircraft will be able to carry the rocket, and its maximum load of 400 kg, up to an altitude of 10.700 m, and then leave it and let it go. The first launch was carried out on May 25, 2020, from the Mojave spaceport, the launch attempt was a failure. After, the first successful flight was on 17 January 2021, which delivered a payload of 10 CubeSats to low Earth orbit (LEO). Three further launches have since successfully reached orbit.

I want to end this insight with a Richard Branson quote that describes for me the spirit of the entire company “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again”. 


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Federico Coppola

Federico Coppola

A third-year student of Histoy and Italian Modern literature at Federico II in Naples, passionate about space, writing, and with an incurable dream of flying up through the clouds to reach the stars.
Admin of the Instagram page Italian_space_meme

One comment

  1. Hi spacevoyaging.com owner, Your posts are always well-received and appreciated.

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