Shimmering, mirage-like, in the heat of California's Mojave Desert, the newly completed steel and concrete of the world's first commercial suborbital spaceship factory proves the goal of space tourism is nearing fruition.

Located across the flightline from Scaled Composites at Mojave Air & Space Port, The Spaceship Co.'s (TSC) 68,000-sq.-ft. Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar (Faith) will soon be humming with activity. By September the facility will start producing the first sections for a second WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft along with the first of multiple SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital vehicles for Virgin Galactic and, ultimately, other customers.

TSC is a joint venture between Virgin Group and Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites. It was set up to bridge the gap between the hand-made, prototyping style of the California-based spaceship developer and a standardized “big aerospace” production facility in the mold of Boeing or Lockheed Martin, capable of delivering safe, reliable passenger-carrying spacecraft.

TSC was initially tasked with making one WK2 and four SS2s for Virgin Galactic, and Operations Director Enrico Palermo says: “I'm confident we'll be building more.” Together with the first WK2 and SS2 already built and in test, Virgin plans to operate an initial fleet of two carriers and five spacecraft, though hopes are high that other “spaceline” customers will emerge.

For now, Palermo says, “our blinders are set on serving our first customer, and getting these spacecraft flying.” With flight tests of the first SS2 accelerating and the first rocket-powered flights expected in coming months, the configuration of the production variants of both spacecraft and carrier aircraft are close to finalization. “WK2 is flying and meeting its objectives, so that's more or less set,” says Joe Brennan, TSC vehicle production manager, who adds that the company is also “pretty happy” with the minor design changes on the SS2 required so far.

Despite the SS2 not yet having flown with its Scaled-Sierra Nevada RM2 hybrid rocket engine, Palermo says fast-paced aerodynamic and control system tests are approaching commercial-level sortie rates between spaceship glide flights. “We've started to show we can really turn these vehicles around,” says Palermo, who notes that five test flights were achieved between June 14 and 27, including the first 24-hr. turnaround between two flights on June 14 and 15. Various modifications made to the 60-ft.-long, 42-ft.-wingspan vehicle so far include the addition of vortex generators and nose strakes.

TSC work at Mojave is focused on two main fabrication and assembly facilities, with a third hangar soon to be leased for storage. The bulk of fabrication will take place in Building 79, a 48,000-sq.-ft. site once used by Scaled. More than $1 million has already been spent upgrading and renovating the facility, which is set up to produce composite panels, subassemblies like the SS2 cabin section and WK2 fuselages, wing skins and empennage. All parts will be shipped to Faith for final assembly. Upgrades include energy-efficiency improvements, installation of a clean room, a 40 X 24 X 12-ft. oven for curing composites and a metals workshop with a CNC lathe.

The bright, clean-looking facility is in sharp contrast to its former appearance. “Nine to 12 months before this it was empty, and six months before that, it was a cave in here,” says Brennan. “There was no clean room or anything, it was just empty.”

The progress is paralleled by the ramp-up in the TSC workforce. “There were just 12 employees then,” comments Palermo. “Now we're adding at a rate of around 10 per month, and will grow from 70 or so now to 175 by late 2012 and early 2013. The majority of those will be in engineering.” To support the buildup, TSC is embarked on a major recruitment drive. “We're looking for the best and the brightest. The sort of people who want to engineer the world's first commercially developed passenger spaceships,” he declares.

The largest single parts made in Building 79 are the continuous composite primary spars for the WK2. Measuring 135 ft. in length, two spars run through the wing, which is extended with additional tip structure to form a 140-ft. overall span. Resembling a flattened “W” in profile, the spars are laid up by hand and cured in sections by a portable vacuum “oven,” which is repositioned along the span as work progresses.

The design is derived from previous Scaled configurations such as the I-beam spar developed for the 110-ft.-span GlobalFlyer. Unlike former shapes, however, the WK2 wing is kinked with dihedral outboard of the fuselage booms and anhedral inboard to increase ground clearance for the SS2. This is suspended on a central pylon, attached to shear webs in the wing, in the 46-ft. clear span between the fuselages.

Aside from the enormous spars—which are long and thin and can therefore be maneuvered out of the facility—the 16-ft.-wide door restricts the size of the largest subassemblies that can be made in Building 79. No such restrictions exist in the 230-ft. clear-span Faith hangar, which includes offices that will serve as TSC's operating headquarters. Faith will be the prime site for assembly and test of the vehicles before they enter service. The building, measuring 200 ft. in depth, is sized to support the production of two WK2s and at least two SS2s in parallel. “If the orderbook develops, we can extend it by adding up to three more bays, or the length of one WK2,” says Palermo.

Assembly jigs for the WK2 wing will be moved into Faith over the coming weeks and will form the basis for the first major assembly work to be undertaken in the new site. Beginning with the wing assembly, the line will follow with cabin, fuselage and empennage. “It will come together in that order and roll to the front of the hangar, where system integration and testing will take place before rollout for flight test,” says Palermo. Facilities for testing and preparing avionics and the WK2's Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308A turbofans are located in the Faith building.

The cabin and forward fuselage of the SS2 are structurally identical to the two forward fuselages, meaning that three of the same basic pressure vessels and surrounding structure will be made per shipset. Each cabin is assembled into a complete pressure vessel from sections and reinforced with longerons and offset vertical frames.

TSC, meanwhile, is in the process of selecting structural suppliers and is “going through the process of qualification” with prospective bidders. “We are starting work on our first SS2 this year; in fact, it's under way already with SS2's cabin, which we are receiving bids for,” comments Palermo. Potential suppliers are providing sample sections. “We're just starting to receive those, and we'll send those to test. If they pass, then they're open to bid,” adds Brennan.

Bob Marks, supply-chain management head and employee No. 1 at TSC, says despite the relatively small numbers included in the initial production batches, the company is not finding it difficult to attract interest from a wide variety of bidders.

“Nobody is under the illusion we're going to blot out the sun with these, but it's simply one of the coolest programs to be involved in,” says Marks. “We're building spacecraft, not bizjets. Our approach to suppliers is also slightly different in that we have more vigorous specs in terms of aerostructures as well as raw materials. We're standing on the shoulders of giants with Scaled Composites, and we're trying to take it to the next level.”

This philosophy is being pursued on the factory floor, where the original assembly jig for the cabin pressure vessel and other sections are being tweaked and improved by TSC for the production version. The original cabin mockup is also being used to develop the interior in conjunction with Virgin Galactic and cabin specialist Adam Wells, who led the design of the Virgin American interior and Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class lounge.

Final touches are now under way at the $7.5 million Faith site, which will be officially opened for business in September. By then, with powered tests of SS2 either pending or in progress, the inauguration should boost hopes that the age of commercial space tourism is finally about to begin.