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'Safety first' is the mantra for SpaceShipTwo

Jonathan Amos | 10:50 UK time, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

It's all about safety and Sir Richard Branson knows it.

He's run a highly successful airline business for 25 years and he understands consumer confidence.

He realises that his spaceliner business must also engender similar levels of confidence in its customers if the whole venture is to succeed.

SpaceShipTwo slung beneath WhiteKnightTwo

And Sir Richard will make the ultimate statement by climbing aboard SpaceShipTwo (SS2) with his family when it goes into commercial service. The qualification process to get to those first flights begins now.

Anyone passing by the Mojave Air and Spaceport in the coming weeks may see something strange. They will witness the rocket vehicle being shaken underneath its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), on the runway.

It will simulate the turbulence the pair might experience in flight.

The SS2 will then be captive-carried aloft by WK2. Initially, these flights will all be about how the two vehicles perform as a unit.

Eventually, WK2 will start dropping SS2 so the spaceship can practise gliding back to the runway.

Then we will see SS2 igniting its "laughing-gas"-and-rubber-fuelled hybrid-rocket engine on some flights.

It will be a gradated process; step-by-step, SS2 will go faster and climb higher, extending its performance and the loading on its airframe. This is the next 18 months. Test flight after test flight.

Deep into 2011, we may see the first sub-orbital missions.

As Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, told me just before he flew out at the weekend for Monday's SS2 unveiling:

"We need to make this safer than driving a car. I don't think we can get it quite to being as safe as flying a jumbo jet because that would take a very long time. But if we can approach those levels, it heralds an entirely new future for access to space, because those reliabilities would then go into our satellite launch business later on."

From my perspective, this is the key point that interests me.

I've already had a lot of e-mails from people commenting on the juxtaposition of SpaceShipTwo's unveiling with the current Copenhagen climate talks; and if you want to make such remarks you are free to do so in the comments field below.

But we have somehow to reduce the cost of access to space. Space-borne services bring enormous benefits to all on planet Earth (see yesterday's blog on MTG) and we could do much more if it wasn't so dashed hard and expensive to get up there.

We are looking to the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk, who featured in this blog a few weeks ago, to try to break the paradigm we're in; to find ways of doing things a lot cheaper than they have been done in the past.

That might seem a strange thing to say when a ticket on SpaceShipTwo is currently selling for $200,000, but it is where we eventually end up that is important.

Some of the entrepreneurs coming into the space business promise a new approach.

Watch this space.

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