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Firm completes spacecraft factory in Mojave

The facility will be home to Spaceship Co., a joint venture of Scaled Composites and British billionaire Richard Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. The company expects to begin production at the end of the month.

September 20, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Outside the new hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port, a SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, center, is attached to the wings of a White Knight aircraft, which resembles a massive flying catamaran.
Outside the new hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port, a SpaceShipTwo rocket… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Bringing commercial spaceflight a step closer to reality, a privately funded aerospace firm has built a production plant where it will assemble the world's first fleet of passenger-ready spaceships.

The 68,000-square-foot facility next to a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port about 100 miles north of Los Angeles is one of the first aircraft assembly plants to be built in the region in decades. It'll be home to Spaceship Co. — a joint venture of Mojave-based Scaled Composites and British billionaire Richard Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

"This is a big day for Galactic," said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic. "We're moving closer and closer to bringing paying passengers into space."

Photos: A factory for spaceships

The joint venture expects to begin building spacecraft at the end of the month. It showcased its new $8-million hangar Monday to about 250 public officials and reporters, revealing a gleaming white factory floor where as many as 200 people are expected to assemble spacecraft.

The company has begun posting job openings on its website for engineers and technicians.

"We're building the first-ever spaceline," Whitesides said. "We want to hire the best of the best."

Nancy Sidhu, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said the opening was welcome news at a time when other aerospace firms are laying off people in anticipation of NASA and Pentagon cutbacks.

"These companies are taking new steps," Sidhu said. "We're witnessing the birth of a new industry here."

The opening of the new hangar in some ways marked a symbolic passing of the torch, with private firms increasingly stepping forward to take over the role of providing human spaceflight that had long been the domain of government space agencies.

The plant that opened Monday is just 30 miles north of Palmdale's Plant 42 where 1,800 workers assembled the space shuttles. The last space shuttle made its final voyage in July. The massive hangar in Palmdale now sits empty with no new work in sight.

Spaceship Co. is the latest commercial space firm to pop up in the Southland, joining Hawthorne-based rocket venture Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, and space tourist firm XCOR Aerospace Inc.

SpaceX, with 1,400 employees, has a $1.6-billion NASA contract to haul cargo atop its rockets to the International Space Station. Before that begins, though, the company plans a test mission to dock with the space station in November.

XCOR, located next door to Spaceship Co.'s main office at Mojave, is testing its spacecraft in wind tunnels and testing out its rocket engine. The company plans on taking people into suborbital space from the Mojave port by mid-decade.

"Mojave is the place to be if you're in this industry," said Andrew Nelson, XCOR's chief operating officer. "Any time our competitors take a step forward it's good for the overall commercial space business, which is still in its early stages."

Spaceship Co. expects to initially build three White Knight aircraft — which resemble massive flying catamarans because each has two fuselages — and five smaller SpaceShipTwo rocket planes.

The rocket plane is slated to have six passengers on board. It will be attached to the wings of a White Knight mother ship, flown to 50,000 feet and released. The rocket plane's engine then ignites and propels it into suborbit.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to climb to the edge of space, about 60 miles above the Earth's surface. At that suborbital altitude, passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.

Photos: A factory for spaceships

Virgin Galactic, which says it has taken reservations and deposits from more than 430 people, hopes to make its first passenger flight next year from the yet-to-be-finished Spaceport America in New Mexico. A ticket to outer space costs $200,000.

The White Knight carrier plane and the SpaceShipTwo rocket ship are now in the midst of a test-flight program in Mojave. Whitesides said that the Federal Aviation Administration will have to certify both aircraft before any paying passengers are allowed to go aboard.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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