Cosmic Girl

L-3’s Waco operation will modify this Boeing 747-400 for Virgin Galactic so it can launch rockets in flight from under its wing.

L-3 in Waco has won a high-profile contract to strengthen the wing of a Boeing 747-400 aircraft for Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Sir Richard Branson. The plane already has arrived at L-3’s facility at Texas State Technical College airport.

L-3, the largest industrial employer in Waco, has been performing engineering work with Virgin Galactic since last year to carry out modifications to the plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, once used to fly Virgin Airlines passengers between the United States and Europe.

Virgin Galactic is known for its work on a program to send paying customers into space, but this project will support satellite launches.

L-3’s work will make the left wing stout enough to support a rocket that would launch in flight from beneath the wing. This rocket would propel satellites into space for commercial and government customers.

Company spokesman Lance Martin said that for confidentiality reasons he could not disclose the value of the contract or the length of the plane’s stay in Waco.

He said performing work for Virgin Galactic and Branson should enhance L-3’s image, saying, “the customer speaks for itself.”

“It is exciting to have the opportunity to apply L-3’s engineering expertise and versatility in systems integration to Virgin Galactic’s pioneering work in creating the world’s first spaceline,” said Jim Gibson, sector president of L-3 Aircraft Systems, which includes the Platform Integration unit in Waco. “From our flight sciences and aerospace engineers to our aircraft technicians, L-3’s team looks forward to collaborating with Virgin Galactic in helping them achieve their goals on this unique program.”

Branson announced in December that the aircraft had been added to Virgin Galactic’s fleet of air and space vehicles. The company selected the 747-400 “due to its robust carrying capacity, operational flexibility, ability to operate in may kinds of weather, global pool of talented maintenance support personnel, robust spare parts supply chain and its lengthy and impressive track record of reliable operations,” L-3 said in a prepared statement.

Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said launching satellites from a plane “allows us to offer rapid, responsive service that meets the schedules and business needs of our customers. Leveraging the extensive technical expertise at L-3 for 747 modifications will enable rapid delivery of the aircraft to launch operations teams at Virgin Galactic.”

Space-related projects

L-3 is no stranger to space-related projects or those involving 747 aircraft. The Waco plant played a substantial role in the so-called SOFIA project, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which involved NASA, the Universities Space Research Association and the German maker of a reflecting telescope 2.5 meters in diameter.

The company modified a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft to accommodate placing the telescope behind a heavy door that could open and close during flight. SOFIA’s flight capability allows it to rise above almost all the water vapor in the atmosphere, giving it a clear view of the sky.

The mounted telescope took its first flight on May 26, 2010, becoming the successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is the world’s first commercial space line. Owned by the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, it is trying to develop reliable, affordable and frequent services both for human spaceflight and satellite launches. LauncherOne is a flexible launch service for commercial and government-built satellites.

LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and will be air-launched from the 747-4000 carrier from various locations.

On the human spaceflight front, Virgin Galactic is testing VSS Unity, the newest spacecraft in its SpaceShipTwo launch system.

To date, 700 people from more than 50 countries have registered to fly with Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are made and tested in Mojave, California, by Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing wing, The Spaceship Co.

Commercial operations will be based in New Mexico, at Spaceport America, the world’s first commercial spaceport built for human travel.

L-3’s headquarters is in New York, and its Platform Integration unit has more than 30 years of experience in modifying military and commercial aircraft. The Waco facility employs about 1,600 people, and that number will not increase to handle the Virgin Galactic contract, Martin said.

L-3 last week announced it has received a $22 million contract from the Department of Defense to keep four Hornet fighter jets in peak condition. The Waco facility will provide administrative and support work for the “depot-level” maintenance of the aircraft. Most of the hands-on work will take place at an L-3 facility in Canada.

The Waco area continues to make waves in the commercialization of space flight. SpaceX has a facility in McGregor and is developing rockets to haul satellites into space and cargo to the International Space Station. It also is looking into the feasibility of taking humans skyward.

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