Flying wing to wing with a spaceship: Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo + SpaceShipTwo at Virgin America's new SFO Terminal

This morning I got up early, packed my bag and headed to the San Francisco International airport (SFO) to attend the opening of Virgin America's new Terminal 2 (T2). I was expecting Sir Richard Branson to be there, and I had been told to keep an eye out for some appearance from some element of Virgin's Galactic's program, but I had no idea what I was in for.

I pretty quickly found out I was in for this:

Shortly before boarding the plane, one of Virgin's PR people announced that we would be making a 20 minute flight over San Francisco, rendezvousing with White Knight 2 and Spaceship 2 inflight, then landing in parallel with the spacecraft.

[Video Link]

After that, I was just in shock. I did what I could to keep myself collected, which was not an easy task. This was just totally unexpected and amazing. At times, the spaceship was only a couple hundred feet away from us.


A new Virgin America A320 named "My Other Ride is a Spaceship" flies beside the first commercial space flight system - Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) (and SpaceShipTwo) - over San Francisco on April 6, 2011. (photo: Mark Greenberg/Virgin America)

[video link]

Here's what greeted us when we arrived at the new terminal:

Sir Richard Branson and California lieutenant governor (and former San Francisco Mayor) Gavin Newsom entering the new terminal:

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a total character, sitting backwards in his seat as we prepared to take off so he could talk to Sir Richard. Here he is checking out the new terminal with some stewardess friends:

Virgin America has some photos of the flight and the new terminal up on their website.

[Editor's note: photos and video in this post, except where otherwise noted, shot by Dean Putney.]


  1. Fascinating, but it’s too bad we can’t see the thing…knight/spaceship thing closer up because that’s one dandy flyin’ machine.

  2. Holy Crap Dean!! I would have had a boner the whole time. Coolest, most inspiring video I’ve seen in months. You did a great job on the camera work, especially at the initial rendezvous with SS2, I could see it coming miles away. (On a day when it was pretty windy as far as the whitecaps show). Thank you. :D

  3. Fan-f–king-tastic.

    The fact that White Knight 2/Space Ship 2 look like they’d be perfectly at place in something like, say, Cowboy Bebop really, really makes me happy.

    1. Well, Mr buzzkill EMJ, for starters its only one little airplane/spaceship as opposed to thousands of commercial airliners buzzing around the globe 24/7, so I’d guess the impact is minimal. Second, it gives many of us technogeeks from the 50s & 60s, who desperately desire to see people in space (and maybe to join them), hope for the future. Either we will, or we will not, be stuck on this planet forever (whatever forever means). Many of us hope that we will not.

      just sayin

    2. Usefulness? Space Tourism may be America’s best hope for giving a bunch of overprivileged rich people the fiery/watery/vaccuumy deaths they deserve.

      I don’t really believe that. But what do you call a spaceship that has never been to space? Dudes are getting boners over airplanes flying and landing next to airplanes. Pretty amazing stuff, in 1910.

      1. Space Tourism may be America’s best hope for giving a bunch of overprivileged rich people the fiery/watery/vaccuumy deaths they deserve.

        Let’s hope not, but if it does happen let’s also hope there’s good, crisp, clear video inside and out of the vehicle. I want to see their expressions as all the money in the world means nothing to them for once in their lives.

      2. Back in 1910 people did not think there was much use for airplanes. This is PRIVATE space travel which has never been done before and though now it is targeted as Space Tourism it will evolve into much more. I.E. Orbital flight and reducing trip times from Coast to coast and internationally. Right now the wealthy are funding this which is great. Unless you want to do it because if you feel that wealthy people deserve to die in space then apparently you do not care about money. Why don’t you give yours to the program?

        The boner is not from landing next to another plane (though that is pretty cool if you cared about aviation at all) but landing next to WKII/SS2 which will expand our current aviation technology without the need for Gov’t involvement.

        This is progression from our current 1950/60s way of air and space travel. You can always take the train

      3. It always depresses me when people talk about how much money is wasted on space travel. It’s all but nothing compared to government expenditures on war and bailouts, and of all the things rich people choose to squander their wealth on, this is one of the few that might someday benefit other people. So why is it always the one that receives so much hate?

  4. I heard the pilot announce something like “…you hipsters are going to be the new astronauts”

    So does that mean that these new hip=stronauts will say stuff like, “I was into moon bases back when it was underground.. because it provides better radiation protection”

  5. For those who, like me, needed to Google: SpaceShipTwo is the detachable craft in the middle. And Nicky is right, it is very much an ancestor of the Swordfish II.

    1. We really should have an animated gif of Buzz Aldrin pasting that guy as part of our logo.

  6. Amazing. I’ve flown in some pretty bizarre formations before (Mig-28, C-130, Bell 412, and a Shorts Skyvan is the weirdest…), but this one sure would be incredible. Jealous.

  7. C’mon cynics. Its not ONLY a system for letting rich people (lets eat them) into space. But hopefully one of many experiments that will lead to simpler, cheaper ways to get off the planet.

  8. SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are surprisingly elegant aircraft. They’ve got a nice, sort of Jetsons-y look to them.

  9. All of the cynical posts here are astonishing. You know what? Millions and billions are spent every year on (1) war and (2) sports. How much money is wanked away on the SuperBowl? Hint: BILLIONS!

    So here is Richard Branson trying to push the limits as usual. He’s a bit of a narcissist and seems to throw anything at the wall to see if it sticks, but he’s ultimately harmless when he fails and great when he hits it. So he wants to commercialize space flight? AWESOME! If I were a kid nowadays I would look towards being a space tourist as a goal in addition to being an astronaut. Heck, the U.S. space program is non-existant and most people don’t care… But a consumer space travel opportunity? That’s exciting! Any schmo can aspire to do that at least once.

    1. Jack, you’re my hero. I’m tired of fighting this battle here alone (I mean at least until I get some sleep). When I am trying to go to sleep and drift off, usually I dream about being a captain on a ship, a pilot, or traveling in space.

      It’s all about dreams.

      1. You’re welcome. And yes, it’s all about dreams. I was a kid in the 1970s. I was born in 1968. My dad has a picture of me as a 1 year old in the crib while he’s sitting on the couch watching TV and watching Apollo 11 take off. There was such pervasive cultural optimism towards space it’s almost hard to believe. But whenever I look over ANY pop culture back in the day I get wistful. Despite all of the crap of the 1970s, there was this magical era of sci-fi and real space exploration. And I really don’t remember anyone being cynical.

        Nowadays the U.S. space program is a joke, and the ambivalence towards space flight and even theorizing about space flight is amazing. No disrespect to cyberpunk and such, but that stuff is so inward, dour and insular it only works for me when it is really, really done well. Where the $%%@!# is the sci-fi that makes space a positive thing. Not just the place where asteroids, aliens and disease come from?

        Rant off, but c’mon folks. Exploration is a normal urge. Stop staring inwards.

    1. Sure, by prior arrangement. Provided ATC and the pilots involved know what’s going on, there’s no problems.

      Also, severe aviation envy here. I love the name of the A320 “My Other Ride Is A Spaceship”!

      And, just because it’s already been referenced upthread, Buzz Aldrin demonstrates continued awesome:

    2. Air traffic control allows that kind of close flying in American airspace???

      Sure, why not? I have been a passenger in a sailplane sharing a powered tug with another sailplane. A fantastic sight and that put three aircraft within 20 metres of each other.

      1. Rules are a little different for commercial flights. See CFR 91.111

        In particular, formation flight is prohibited while carrying passengers. This may not apply to foreign flag flights – anyone know?

        I do know US carriers have gotten pilots in hot water for similar safe but spectacular flights.

  10. I’ve flown a couple of planes; used to love fighter planes as a kid; have loved the idea space travel since ’69; think Branson is a great bloke and that he was diddled out of running the UK lottery; love the whole ‘Virgin’ thing; and agree that there are a lot of unfairly critical posts here, but really, in comparison to watching a rocket take of at Canaveral or similar this kinda pales – maybe you had to be there. I do wish them success though.

  11. I’m jealous, Buzz Aldrin is awesome, I want to see that spaceship and “my other ride is a spaceship” is legendary.

    1. TOO Dangerous?

      That get’s my goat about as much as people complaining that space travel / exploration / experimentation is too expensive.

      When did we get so cowed by lawyers that things became too dangerous? I used to climb trees as a kid, sure it was dangerous, but my parents kept an eye on me and had I have fallen and broken and arm or something I’d have learnt something. I didn’t fall, and in that I learnt something.

      As Jack and Jake0748 have said, it’s about the dreams.

  12. “Sir” Richard Branson? That’s a little bit obsequious isn’t it? Quite unlike the usual fight-the-power anti-establishment boingboing we’re used to.

    I’m sure Branson wouldn’t mind if we skip the honorific. You don’t have to use the “Sir”, particularly since this is an American site and America doesn’t use these honours. I mean, who calls Paul McCartney “Sir Paul McCartney” except news readers? I assure you no British blogger would ever refer to Branson as “Sir Richard Branson”. It seems excessively formal and a little bit toadying and we-are-not-worthy.

    1. American site? I think you’ll find the internet crosses political borders – and the site has no particular affiliation with any nation – which is one fo the reasons I enjoy it.

      boingboing may however be an American company, if that’s what you mean?

  13. So … Branson is developing a fleet of submarines, his team wears BROWN UNIFORMS and this craft is called the SS 2. CAN’T YOU SEE WHAT’S GOING ON?!

  14. It’s interesting to see the conflict in a post like this. On the one hand, I too am a child of the 60’s and am very excited and happy to see a dream like this coming to fruition. On the other hand, it is very clear there are a lot of people hurting and angry out there about the wealth disparity in this country.

    1. I feel you: it’s sort of like talking about the Pyramids without speaking about both their grandeur and the misery that went into making them. This is both glorious and sad, an achievement and a huge waste of money and resources. Does Branson have a similarly impressive clear energy and resource management scheme?

      I guess I just don’t get the desire to leave dying Earth and to go ruin other planets. Why the desire for (false) transcendence? Earth is our home, gravity our friend.

      1. I don’t feel like it’s about going out and ruining other planets…if anything, I think the people who will be smart enough to get to Mars will certainly take the knowledge and technology to insure the “greenest” possible future for that planet. We have to leave Earth in the long term, why NOT start now?

      2. Why do we have to leave Earth, though? Earth’s physical death is many millennia off. And how to outrun the eventual heat-death of the entire universe? Whyn’t just fix up what we have?

        We might have the tech: but the moral and intellectual tech required to not fight, not destroy? I side with Hobbes in darkly prognosticating that even in space we’ll be red in tooth and claw: only with phasers and lightspeed! Admittedly, it’s an interesting philosophical divide, whether one sees space travel as utopian, dystopian, or an unstable mixture of the two. I’m betting it will be cosmically bloody (pun intended).

        1. Tdawwg, if you have a solution to the problem of asteroids doing to the earth what a hollow point bullet does to a watermelon that doesn’t require leaving the surface, I’d love to hear it.

        2. Whyn’t just fix up what we have?

          Because what we have will fix up a lot better if the biggest consumers are elsewhere, consuming resources from another place. Yes, space does the exact opposite in the short run, but then it’s always been about looking to the future.

  15. Awesome video, but somehow it irritates me how Americans say “Oh my gosh, it’s so awesome. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”, etc, the way 12 year old kids talk…

    1. I don’t get it. How should they be reacting? No adults you know use the words “cool” or “awesome”? Incidentally its not just Americans who use those terms. And considering you can’t generally tell nationality from BoingBoing screennames, well. I wouldn’t be jumping to any conclusions.

    2. Awesome video, but somehow it irritates me how Americans say “Oh my gosh, it’s so awesome. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”, etc, the way 12 year old kids talk…

      “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.” – Charles Baudelaire

      Long Live the Republic!

    3. Yeah, that 12 year old attitude, (gosh!) about that…could it be that this kind of (awesome) open ended (fun! fun! fun!) enthusiasm for life has led it to being (totally) innovative in so many (super burning hot) ways?

    4. Well, there are lots of options for talking like adults. We can talk bureaucratic style: Projections indicate that the so-called “cool” factor, as it is termed by the youth of today, will be significantly higher than for at least a majority of other entities throughout the time period under consideration. [1]

      We can talk florid literature style: Though ’twere against my nature, I must confess that to see this marvel take flight, I become transfixed; and though the world is filled with wonders, and in their own time and place I have admired each as they deserve, for one moment their memories seem paled and exceeded, as the moon is when she is placed beside the sun.

      Or we can even talk DJ style: Damn, she’s a sexy ship. Just let us know what works for you!

      1. Your latter example seems more Hemingway than hip-hop. Where are the ghetto references? Or the MoFo or bee-atch vanilla ice rapper terms? I have no idea what they may actually be, but that nice tight sentence with it’s single barely questionable expletive seems too Angry Young Men literary than Fiddy.

        1. I wasn’t trying to be Vanilla Ice or Fiddy. I was just trying to find the words to describe this plane without being disrespectful.

  16. Well if anyone out there has flown with any airline on a long haul flight overseas recently you should welcome these advances as it will dramatically reduce the time spent in a cramped, stuffy vessel and the inevitable jet lag one experiences.

  17. How about we combine his recent projects and have the plane drop the submarine into the ocean.

  18. To tobergill and other Alliance apologists, please get thee some “Serenity”. Browncoats will prevail.

    To all the other haters; you all remind me of some old prudes sitting in your buggy tsk tsk-ing about how them new fangled horseless carriages are just the playthings of the rich.

    Now, if we can just get Sir Branson to build us some orbital dirigibles…..

  19. SPACE ELEVATOR! SPACE ELEVATOR! SPACE ELEVATOR! (Although the submarine thing is cool too.)

  20. You just described the video as awesome while ranting against the use of the word awesome??? Time to recalibrate your snark ray. As for me, I thought it was totally tubular.

  21. Air traffic control allows that kind of close flying in American airspace???

    Sure, why not? I have been a passenger in a sailplane sharing a powered tug with another sailplane. A fantastic sight and that put three aircraft within 20 metres of each other.

    US air regulations permit formation flying with certain restrictions. The main one is (duh) pilots agree to do it beforehand, and that no paying passengers are involved.

    If they wanted to be skeevy about it they could have done it over international waters off the coast and out of US jurisdiction but in this case it was safe AND legal.

  22. It’ll be great when they figure out how to get through the Van Allen radiation belts without cooking the astronauts (implying …).

  23. “I feel it’s my duty to pass on information at all times, so that we can all learn, evolve, and get the fuck off this planet. ” — Bill Hicks

    (yes, part of a riff about smoking risks, but pertinent sentiment here.)

  24. Am I jealous? It’s not jealousy – I don’t feel entitled to ride into space and if I had the money to, I wouldn’t spend it on that. I feel a bit offended, like here’s yet another thing that the super rich can smear in our faces.

  25. Nice shots of the Farallon Islands as well. I expect it was a convenient spot to rendezvous. As well as being a gorgeous day to be out there.

  26. I’m old. I was in high school when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. At that time, I was convinced that we would have orbiting space habitats by the year 2000. No, I didn’t view “2001” as a documentary, but I figured/hoped/anticipated that there was a small chance that I might make it to LEO before I died.

    Unfortunately that wasn’t to be. The US backed away from space (for reasons that probably made sense to someone) and now, instead of spaceflight and orbiting habitats and moonbases, we have an aging expensive retired “shuttle” which got rebuilt after every trip, and a crappy son-of-Skylab “space station” which serves no useful purpose.

    Branson and others are doing something to rekindle the flame, albeit for commercial reasons. I hope he succeeds, and doesn’t get shot down by the bitter Americans if he gets close to succeeding. I remember that Boeing was building an SST to rival Concorde; when they failed, suddenly supersonic travel was deemed unsafe. How long before some bought politician in America enacts a law that spaceflight is against God’s law, or violates the rights of the unborn?

    1. We abandoned space because it takes 13 inches of water to shield astronauts from extreme radiation found in the Van Allen belts. That is why we “haven’t gone back” to the moon, that is, if we ever really went there in the first place (the original data tapes with the SSTV signals showing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon were “lost”). Satellites have many redundant systems and heavy shielding because some circuitry always gets zapped by heavy particles whizzing around the belts, which trap that stuff from the sun and elsewhere, due to our wonderful magnetic field, making life possible down here.

      1. You do know there are objects they left on the Moon that we can detect from Earth, and that the Moon is safely past the Van Allen belts, right?

        1. The objects on the moon could have be placed by unmanned probes. Telemetry and other communications can be simulated from relays placed on the moon or in orbit by unmanned probes. We needed to beat the Soviets, whatever the cost. We “won,” which is all that matters. Ever heard of the “black budget?” Simulated telemetry could have been a project within a project.

          Why did the government recently cancel the program for going “back” to the moon? Why haven’t more Apollo astronauts died from cancer? When you read about the Van Allen belts in the context of the Apollo missions, they are “no big deal”, like getting 250 chest X-rays over the course of a few hours, but when you read about them out of the Apollo context, they are considered very hazardous to life and equipment. There was even an experiment to try to “discharge” the Van Allen belts, using a long conducting tether from the space shuttle, but that failed when the enormous energy in the belts overloaded the conductor in the tether and it broke.

          1. It never occurred to me that missions that burn through the Van Allen belts on one hand, and missions that take place inside them on the other, have different concerns about the level of radiation. That is suspicious.

            As far as beating the Soviets, you seem to know more than me, so can you explain why they went along with the lie about the US beating them? That’s the one part of the conspiracy I never understood.

  27. i like the part where he said o my god, that’s insane, that’s insane, that’s insane, that’s the coolest thing, o my god, that’s the coolest thing, that’s insane.

  28. I remember Sputnik, and dogs and chimps in space and enjoyed showing my middle school students Dean’s post along with a quick summary of the “old” days (until yesterday’s low altitude debut) when the astronauts effectively sat on a bomb to head away from Earth. WK2/SS2 are a lightyear leap. Godspeed!

  29. I was watching that video and kept thinking, “Don’t let it turn into the XB-70 photo-op disaster.” On even a perfect day I’d be leery of getting into a passenger jet’s wake vortices.

  30. Isaac Asimov once wrote an article describing exactly how much in the way of resources it would take to get humanity out of the gravity well. The truth of the matter is: No matter how many people we hurl into space, Earth will be humanity’s home for as long as humanity exists.

    We’re not really going anywhere, so we might as well explore the Universe while we’re stuck here.

  31. I must be the only one who isn’t that impressed with Spaceship 1 and 2.

    It is a ballistic flight, no where near orbital. It is a plane with a rocket that boosts it out of the atmosphere, where it free falls for a bit and fall back down. Probably a lot of fun, and was an interesting challenge to engineer.

    SpaceX, however, is something worth getting excited about. Changing the economics of orbital launches, breaking the military industrial complex’s monopoly on space.

    But hey, we can throw things into (out of) the air and ride them down again. Woooo!

  32. Yeah, I love Virgin’s penchant for giving their planes Iain M. Banks Culture type names: “Tubular Belle,” “Contents May Be Under Pressure.”

    Here’s a list.

  33. amazing !!1 Sir Richard Branson is one of the coolest rich folks I know of and don’t forget that plane and ship is a joint venture with one of the most brilliant aircraft designers in the world, Burt Runtan. These are the kind of people who will put us back in space for sure. Branson puts his money and his abilities where his mouth is unlike a lot of other folks. He is also funding one of the neatest undersea crafts in existence. If only he was born in the USA so he could run for president instead of that boob Donald Trump

  34. @73: i believe that space ship one is also the result of a x price challenge, just a earlier one!

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