Monday, July 28, 2008

What Happened at Scaled

Today White Knight 2 is scheduled to be rolled out at Scaled Composites. One year ago July 26 a mysterious explosion took the lives of 3 engineers. Big as a 757, this will be the largest aircraft ever built by Scaled. The twin hulls are similiar to the spacecraft for ease of production. There will also be training and revenue opportunies for passengers in WK2. Rollouts are exciting to watch, but a long test schedule awaits. Spaceship 2 can not fly until its carrier is certified for flight.

The most important part of a rocket is the engine. Burt Rutan chose a hybrid engine, which has some advantages of both liquid and solid fuel. Solid fuel is pre-loaded into the engine for ease of handling. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is injected into the combustion chamber, allowing the engine to be throttled. With all his contributions to aviation, Rutan had never built a rocket engine prior to Spaceship One. Building and fueling the hybrid motor was contracted to Jim Benson's SpaceDev.

In the wake of Spaceship One winning the X-Prize, Rutan and Benson parted ways. Scaled now lacks Benson's expertise in handling explosive fuels. Benson Space Company is now developing its Dreamchaser spacecraft. Because Dreamchaser would take off without a carrier aircraft, it would have a shorter development time. Without Richard Branson's deep pockets, Benson faces challenges in funding DreamChaser.

After 2007's accident, Rutan's Scaled Composites was fined for improper handling of nitrous oxide. They've still not figured out what caused the accident. Spaceflight is dangerous and expensive, but who would pass up a ride like this? White Knight has other applications--it can theoretically launch a one-person spacecraft into orbit! We can wish Rutan, Benson, and all private Space enterprises the best of luck.


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