National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Scaled Composites

The Space Academy toured Scaled Composites on Friday, July 16th.  The tour, led by engineers Elliot Seguin, started with an informative presentation by Vice President of Engineering Ben Diachun on the nature of Scaled Composites. The Academy learned that the company was founded by Burt Rutan in 1982 with goals of improvement in composite aircraft design, prototyping, and flight testing. Today, Scaled Composites still focuses on the pursuit of breakthroughs in those areas. Scaled Composites employees about 150 people throughout 25 buildings set out over 325,000 square feet. The company splits its resources about half and half between defense contracting and commercial endeavors with the hope of becoming more commercial as time goes on.

The presentation covered SpaceShipOne, which completed the first manned private spaceflight in 2004. SpaceShipOne was designed as a reusable suborbital space system and revolutionized the face of Scaled Composites forever. The spacecraft was air launched with the equally impressive mother ship dubbed White Knight. Another notable project completed by Scaled Composites is the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, which was designed to fly around the world in a single flight. The single-seat turbofan powered aircraft completed its mission in March of 2005. Also mentioned was Proteus, which was designed as a multi-mission, high-altitude aircraft capable of handling very heavy payloads for long durations. Scaled Composites is not only proud of their amazing array of 25 developed aircraft projects, but also of their world record test pilots, advanced conceptual designs, elite tooling and fabrication, and cutting-edge simulations. Furthermore, Scaled Composites builds almost everything in house from raw materials. Overall, the main message displayed to the Academy was that Burt Rutan instilled a culture of innovation that should never be lost.

After the presentation, the Academy went to the shop floor, but only after getting a glimpse of the Mojave desert where not only companies like Scaled Composites thrive, but where home-built aircraft are not uncommon. Inside the shop sits Scaled Composites’ current and deeply impressive projects, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. First the academy got up close and personal with WhiteKnightTwo whose 150 ft. wingspan was incredible. WhiteKnightTwo is a double cockpit design that looks awkward to fly, but the tour guides insisted that once in the air it feels natural. During a mission SpaceShipTwo is held under the wing between the two cockpits up to 50,000 feet, at which point SpaceShipTwo is dropped and rockets into space. Amazingly, WhiteKnightTwo has the ability to catch up to SpaceShipTwo’s ground track if something goes wrong. As far as manufacturing is concerned, both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo have very similar designs and are made with the same material in order to minimize cost.

On the other side of the shop floor the Academy was introduced to SpaceShipTwo, which, like SpaceShipOne, is designed for commercial flights into space. The airline that will provide the flights on SpaceShipTwo is Virgin Galactic, who has taken deposits from 440 potential customers. SpaceShipTwo will carry two crew pilots and up to six passengers, who will be taken into suborbital space for about 4 minutes. Upon reentry SpaceShipTwo will reach 300 degrees Celsius while maintaining a comfortable cabin temperature. Passengers will reach speeds of up to Mach 4, and feel the force of 6 Gs as they head down to land on the same airstrip they took off from, which will be Spaceport America in New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo uses both wheels and a front skid to make its landing. WhiteKnightTwo flew in 2008, while SpaceShipTwo began drop tests in 2010. The first commercial flight should be starting in the next year or two. The most unique component of SpaceShipTwo’s design is the feathered wings. A giant hinge on the wings allow the spacecraft to start the return to Earth on a very low-heat ballistic trajectory, then transition to an unpowered glide down to the ground. SpaceShipTwo’s engine is also revolutionary as it is the biggest hybrid rocket engine ever created.

To wrap up the tour, the guides also pointed out Scaled Composites 40 by 40  by 20 foot CNC Composite fabrication machine, which creates many of the composites used on a variety of projects. At the end of the day, Scaled Composites is a perfect example of private industry advancing human exploration of space in admirable fashion.