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April 2006 edition

Carbon composite development is key to passenger space flights

By Rod Smith

Scaled Composites, an aerospace and speciality composites development company, will begin work within weeks on a passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft.

The technology is based on an award-winning commercial rocket designed by Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites and an American aerospace engineer. It involves a shape-changing design so the craft can assume a sycamore seed-shaped wing on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. The designers want the spacecraft to flutter safely, rather than hurtle, back down to earth.

Scaled Composites is subcontractor and partner to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for the building of SpaceShipTwo. It owns 30 per cent, with an option to take its stake to 40 per cent, while Virgin owns 70 per cent. The craft follows SpaceShipOne which, on 4 October, 2004, became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within a 14-day period.

Scaled would not release any information regarding the SpaceShipTwo programme. But Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, says the plan is to build five space ships and two ‘carriers’ – the passenger space ships would be carried into space by a larger mother ship and launched at altitude.

Branson says the ultimate vision is for an environmentally-friendly commercial passenger craft that lifts into space and can set down safely on the other side of the world faster than passengers can currently expect to boar....

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