Have you heard about Elon Musk’s ambitious plan to carry humankind to Mars? Of course you have. But it turns out that Musk is not the only one with spaceflight on his mind. There are a number of other companies pursuing private space travel for everything from tourism to exploration. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is one such company.
Virgin Galactic is on the verge of being the first privately owned company to offer space tourism. Thanks to a futuristic spacecraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers story, anyone with $250,000 to spend can experience the G-forces of rocket launch, the weightlessness of space, and the heat and turbulence of re-entry. And it is all possible thanks to carbon fiber.
WhiteKnight and SpaceShip
Getting you into space under the watchful eye of Virgin Galactic requires the use of a hybrid spacecraft consisting of two parts: WhiteKnight and SpaceShip. Let’s talk about both, in reverse order.
SpaceShip is the actual vessel that pilots and passengers will ride in during their journey. It will carry them from a suborbital altitude into space for several minutes of fantastic views. It will then return to Earth and land, only to be used again for the next trip.
WhiteKnight is the vehicle that will carry SpaceShip to its launching altitude. It is designed to replace the traditional rocket launched from Earth. By carrying SpaceShip to its launch altitude with WhiteKnight, Virgin Galactic creates a less intense experience that is also markedly safer. And if you want to encourage space tourism, making it safer is key
WhiteKnight is a vehicle that looks like two airplanes joined wing-to-wing. In between is the SpaceShip module with its own on-board rocket. The entire vehicle takes off just like a plane, flying to launch altitude within a reasonable amount of time. Once there, SpaceShip’s rocket is engaged. The vehicle is released from WhiteKnight and heads into space.
Impossible without Carbon Fiber
Virgin Galactic officials insist that their plan would not be possible without carbon fiber. Both vehicles are made almost entirely of the space-age material in order to control weight. If they tried to build WhiteKnight and SpaceShip with steel, they would never get off the ground.
Carbon fiber has a superior strength-to-weight ratio, according to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites. That is why companies like Boeing and Airbus are relying on it more and more. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is another aircraft that would not be possible to build without carbon fiber.
An Expensive Proposition
The one downside to using carbon fiber as the main construction material is its cost. If you want to know why Virgin Galactic is planning to charge $250,000 a head, look no further than the expense involved in building WhiteKnight and SpaceShip.
Just to build the fuselage panels for the three vehicles requires a labor-intensive process. They start by manufacturing tools, or molds if you will, from which they will make the fuselage panels. The panels themselves are fabricated using a manual layup process that sees multiple layers of carbon fiber prepregs arranged in the tool. Then the entire thing goes into a high heat autoclave that costs a lot of money to run.
This doesn’t even account for the cost of buying the carbon fiber prepregs. They are also expensive due to the energy resources needed to create the fibers that are woven into prepreg fabrics.
Thanks to carbon fiber, you can take your own trip to space. If you have $250,000 to spend, Virgin Galactic has a seat with your name on it.