Aurora Flight Sciences (Aurora), a Boeing company, has reached a new agreement with Virgin Galactic to design and manufacture the company’s next-generation motherships. The mothership is the air launch carrier aircraft in Virgin Galactic’s space flight system that carries the spaceship to its release altitude of approximately 50,000 feet.
Virgin’s work under the partnership with Aurora has already begun, as the two companies have been working together for the past several months to develop design specifications as well as workforce and resource requirements in preparation for this long-term project. Virgin Galactic has placed orders for two more WhiteKnightTwo motherships from Aurora to support the air-launch of its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. The two-vehicle contract will enable Aurora to immediately begin development.
The WhiteKnightTwo air launch carrier aircraft will carry SpaceShipTwo aloft slung between its two hulls. It is of twin-fuselage design with four jet engines mounted two on each wing. With a wingspan of 141 ft (43 meters), the mothership can carry the payload to an altitude of around 50,000 ft (15,000 m), and the spaceplane is released to fly into space under the thrust of its hybrid rocket engine.
Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing strategy is designed to leverage third-party suppliers to improve efficiency, access new innovation and technology, and tap into existing highly skilled labor pools. This allows the company’s in-house team to focus on complex and critical elements such as design, engineering, and final assembly.
The two new aircraft will be manufactured by Aurora at its Columbus, Mississippi, and Bridgeport, West Virginia facilities. The final assembly of the motherships will be completed at the Virgin Galactic facility in Mojave, California. The first new mothership is expected to enter service in 2025, the same year Virgin Galactic’s first Delta-class spaceship is expected to begin revenue payload flights. The company’s upcoming commercial missions are expected in the first quarter of 2023.
“Our next-generation motherships are integral to scaling our operations,” said Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer. “They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain, and will allow us to fly substantially more missions each year. Supported by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights per year at Spaceport America.”