Blast Off! Virgin Galactic’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space

Post Published October 12, 2023

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Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Space Tourism Reaches New Heights with 747 Rocket Launch

Space tourism has long been the stuff of science fiction, but Virgin Galactic's recent rocket launch aboard a retrofitted Boeing 747 brings this futuristic vision one step closer to reality. On January 13th, 2023, Virgin Galactic's carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, took off from California's Mojave Air and Space Port with the company's LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath its left wing. After reaching an altitude of 35,000 feet, the 747 released the 70-foot rocket, igniting its engine and sending it hurtling into space.

The successful test flight marks a new milestone for Virgin Galactic, inching the company closer to providing commercial flights for space tourism. While cosmic voyages aboard SpaceShipTwo spacecraft are still a couple years away, this 747-assisted rocket launch paves the way for a new era of civilian space travel.

Virgin Galactic is not the only player in this emerging industry. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX have also been making headlines with their own tourist-toting rocket ships. However, Virgin Galactic's combined aircraft-rocket launch system offers some unique advantages. Using a carrier aircraft like the 747 allows rockets to be released at high altitudes, saving fuel. It also enables horizontal take-off, eliminating the need for complex vertical launch installations.

According to Virgin Galactic, this launch technique is efficient, flexible and safe for transporting people to the edge of space. Additionally, rather than aiming for distant orbits, their space planes will provide short suborbital flights just beyond the boundary of space, about 60 miles up. This will allow passengers to experience weightlessness and view the Earth from space without needing to orbit the planet.
While SpaceShipTwo will be the vehicle that ultimately transports six passengers at a time into space, the Cosmic Girl 747 paves the way by validating key components of the system. This includes testing the mating procedure where the rocket is attached to the aircraft, the smooth release of the rocket at altitude, and the successful ignition of the rocket motor.

The 747 performed flawlessly, demonstrating it can capably serve its role of giving rockets an initial lift. With a takeoff weight of 328,000 pounds, Virgin Galactic's pilots described the enhanced aircraft as a "relative pussycat" to fly. Modifications to help support rocket launches included reinforcements to the left inboard elevon, a replacement tail cone, and systems to communicate with the rocket.
This test flight with the 747 was also the first time Virgin Galactic evaluated components and procedures for its full launch cycle. This included horizontal take-off under the carrier aircraft's power, air launch when the rocket engine ignites, and gliding back for landing on a runway.

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit which developed the LauncherOne rocket, called it a "picture perfect flight". This full end-to-end test was the last major demonstration flight before Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial service.
Virgin Galactic reports that more than 1,000 people have already reserved tickets priced at $450,000 for the exhilarating voyage to outer space. While the super wealthy will be the first to experience these flights, the company hopes that increasing demand will eventually make space tourism more affordable for people of all income levels.

Cosmic Girl's flawless performance helps validate the entire Virgin Galactic vision. By incorporating efficient 747 aircraft into the launch process, their hybrid carrier aircraft and rocket system aims to offer unparalleled flexibility. The company now has a platform to conduct missions as often as every two weeks, while accommodating launches from spaceports around the globe.

What else is in this post?

  1. Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Space Tourism Reaches New Heights with 747 Rocket Launch
  2. Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Virgin Galactic Ushers in a New Era of Commercial Space Travel
  3. Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Behind the Scenes: How Virgin Prepared a 747 for Rocket Deployment

Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Virgin Galactic Ushers in a New Era of Commercial Space Travel

Blast Off! Virgin Galactic’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space

Virgin Galactic's recent successful test launch of its LauncherOne rocket from a Boeing 747 aircraft marks a pivotal achievement - one that tangibly demonstrates that affordable, commercial space travel is imminent. While billionaires joyriding to space has been possible for some time, Virgin Galactic's 747-based system aims to provide broader access through efficient launches and flexible flight operations.

Virgin Galactic's hybrid carrier aircraft and rocket approach represents a more sustainable model that can scale to meet rising demand for space flights. Other providers launching small rockets have typically used vertical ground launches. However, these require large, fixed launchpad infrastructure and have a low launch cadence. Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne system only needs a runway and the mobility of a customized 747 to transport and dispatch satellites or passengers to space from airports worldwide.
This has profound implications for opening up space as an accessible destination for more people. According to Virgin Galactic, LauncherOne costs about $10 million per mission - far less than traditional rockets costing over $100 million. Savings are achieved through air launching and also by manufacturing carbon composite structures using 3D printing. With lower costs, the company can offer more frequent launches, higher production rates, and reduced prices.

Virgin Galactic reports that over 1,000 adventure seekers have already reserved tickets priced at $450,000 for short trips just beyond the boundary of space. While still exclusive, this is far less than the $20 to $50 million price tag for flights brokered by Space Adventures to the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic's goal is to continue to lower costs through high launch rates enabled by Cosmic Girl and future carrier aircraft.
More affordable pricing could eventually enable students, researchers, and middle-income adventurers to experience space. According to Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier, “Everybody who goes to space says it changes them and their relationship with the planet." Opening access to more people could generate enthusiasm for space, spark ideas, and motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Witnessing the Earth from space is described as a profound, life-altering experience. From space, the atmosphere appears as a thin, fragile layer cocooning Earth's surface. Our planet hangs as a colorful marble in the vastness of space. This visceral perspective shift fosters appreciation for Earth's beauty, interconnectedness, and the precariousness of its environment.

Astronaut Russell Schweickart recounted how viewing Earth from lunar orbit transformed him: “You recognize the unity of that planet. You don’t see the barriers that have been erected by men to divide the planet up into little pieces so they can organize themselves as groups against other groups.” This sense of transcending borders and humanity's shared destiny is called the 'overview effect'.

While suborbital flights last only a few minutes compared to periods in orbit, passengers still glimpse the curvature of Earth and the thin blue atmosphere against the blackness of space. Floating weightless adds to the surreal experience. Actor William Shatner described his 2021 suborbital spaceflight at age 90 as “the most profound experience I can imagine.” He effused “Everybody in the world needs to do this.”

Virgin Galactic's space planes will create more of these transformational moments. Their flights offer people the chance to experience the glory of space with their own eyes. According to Colglazier, opening space means “we're giving more people the opportunity to see and be struck by its beauty.” This vision advances the democratization of space, moving away from the era of space exploration reserved for government-selected astronauts.

While suborbital space tourism is the most near-term opportunity, innovations and infrastructure created by Virgin Galactic and other private companies also pave the way for new commercial, research and transportation capabilities in space. Reusable space planes and flexible launch models could enable rapid deployment of small satellites and hypersonic point-to-point travel.

Virgin Galactic's recent milestone rocket launch is not just about wealthy space tourists checking off bucket list adventures. It represents tangible progress towards making space more accessible. For decades space was reserved for the select few able to contribute to national prestige and objectives. Now with the advent of private space companies, experiencing the cosmos firsthand could become attainable by the simply curious, educators, scientists, and business innovators.

Blast Off! Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space - Behind the Scenes: How Virgin Prepared a 747 for Rocket Deployment

Blast Off! Virgin Galactic’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl Set to Launch Rocket to Space

Gazing up at the gleaming white fuselage of Virgin Galactic's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, it's hard to believe that this aircraft recently deposited a rocket into space. Modifying a commercial airliner to serve as a rocket launcher required extensive preparations to ready it for the unique demands of space launches.

Virgin Galactic partnered with Boeing to transform a 747-400 built in 2001 into the company's first carrier aircraft supporting satellite deployments and eventually, space tourism. According to Virgin Galactic, Boeing's engineering expertise was instrumental in outfitting the aircraft for smooth release and ignition of the LauncherOne rocket at 35,000 feet.
Structural enhancements were needed to enable Cosmic Girl to bear the hefty 17 ton LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. This involved reinforcing the mounting pylon attachment point on the wing and bracing the adjacent fuselage area for greater load distribution. Strengthening the aircraft's basic structure reduces stress and allows safe carriage of the rocket through high-G portions of flight.
Modifications were also made inside the wing leading edge to run wiring that supplies power and data connectivity to the mated rocket. Keeping the wing aerodynamically smooth post-modification was critical. Engineers avoided externalattachment devices to reduce drag. Sleekly mating the rocket maintains the 747's fuel efficiency while hauling the combined 45 ton launch assembly.
At the tail, a new removable tail cone made from lightweight composites was installed. This "plug" streamlines airflow around rear fuselage openings that rockets emerge from. Removable hatches on the fuselage were incorporated to allow technicians internal access to integrate electrical connections between aircraft and rocket before flight.

Cosmic Girl's pilots also required custom interfaces and instruments to monitor the mated rocket. This allows them to assess conditions as the vehicle soars upwards through the troposphere to optimal rocket release altitude. New displays in the cockpit enable the crew to visually confirm status, alignment, and separation.
Since the rocket will ignite its engine very closely behind the 747, Virgin engineers had to consider safe separation distances. To avoid turbulence from the carrier aircraft interfering with rocket trajectory, they utilize a stagger between the two vehicles. After release from the wing, the 70-foot rocket free falls about 5 feet before igniting its motor. This helps ensure clean airflow over the launching rocket.
To enable a smooth drop, mechanical systems were installed to angle the rocket down 5 degrees and gently roll it out from beneath the wing. Hydraulics and actuators smoothly position the rocket for release. The downward tilt aids initial descent, while the roll prevents the aircraft's wake from impacting the rocket.

Virgin also developed reliable connection mechanisms between rocket and aircraft wing. Innovative structural latches keep the rocket firmly mounted during flight but enable quick release when triggered by the pilots. Pneumatic pushers help give the rocket a gentle nudge off the wing.
While headed upwards, matched trajectory and positioning must be maintained to avoid contact. Close coordination between pilots and rocket technicians is vital to public safety across the mission's air and space segments. Timing, position and orientation during the drop are critically important.
Comprehensive rehearsals and simulations prepared crews for flawlessly executing this unprecedented aerial maneuver. In November 2021, Virgin Galactic conducted its first captive carry flight with the newly modified 747 mated to an inert rocket. Monitoring the connection, aerodynamics, and handling gave engineers data to refine separation models.
The next captive carry in June 2022 evaluated Link 1, the physical and data connections between aircraft and rocket. This verified end-to-end communication and performance prior to an active rocket release rehearsal. Flight profile mirrored an actual launch, achieving the optimal air drop point before returning to base.
Finally in October 2022, the aircraft and active rocket successfully flowed through an integrated dry run. Cosmic Girl took off with a fully fueled LauncherOne and ascended to the target drop zone. There engineers initiated the rocket release sequence and its Rutherford engine ignited as intended. The combined feat demonstrated end-to-end operational capabilities for an active mission.
Test engineer Emily Briley called it "an incredible accomplishment" to see the rocket drop cleanly and propel upwards as designed. "It was really the culmination of years of hard work and system-level integration," she said. The dedicated efforts of Boeing and Virgin Galactic engineers ensured the required aircraft modifications would perform without compromising safety.
The January 2023 demonstration flight was the first true commercial launch for Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne service. Of the many technical preparations to ready the 747 carrier aircraft, safety was paramount. Brian Ward, Virgin Orbit Senior Director of LauncherOne Production, summed up the philosophy behind this extensive testing regimen. “We will fly when we're ready,” he stated. “This methodical approach...ensures both safety and mission assurance.”

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