Up, up, and away! Bob visits Virgin Galactic and learns what it’s like to reach for the stars.  He gets the royal treatment and tours their top secret facility.

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 2013, so here we go. Here’s a space story which started with Disney’s WALL-E, then a visit by Star Tours R2D2, finally a return to Earth winding up on Radiator Springs Racers. Yes, it’s spaced out alright – Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise where paying passengers will soon be shot up into outer space.

Last year Michael McMaster, a member of android builder’s club R2LA, introduced me to his real size animated droid WALL-E at Walt Disney’s Barn near the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank California. Michael also has an R2D2 animated droid which recently met two real life space engineers from Virgin Galactic. These engineers, Scott and Jason, thought R2D2 should visit the home of Virgin Galactic’s very own space ships out at their secret test site in the Mojave Desert. And R2D2 (bless his heart) thought Legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr should be included in the visit.


Sure enough, Michael, his daughter, and I were soon given secret clearance to both Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, the famous aerospace “Skunk Works”, founded by genius aircraft designer Burt Rutan, located at the Mojave Air & Space Port in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. Our visit was hosted by Scott and Jason who showed us their incredible spacecraft. Adventurer Sir Richard Branson has created successful business enterprises all over the world for many decades. In 2000 Virgin Galactic was formed for the purpose of introducing paying passengers into real space with regularly scheduled flights. Virgin has around 800 reservations by those adventurous souls who’ve already paid the $250,000 ticket price!

Readers should visit the Virgin Galactic website for a thorough briefing on how this space flight system works – it’s way more incredible than I can explain here. Incredible both by audacious dreaming and by a direct simplicity totally unlike the usual government space program extravagant cost and complexity. Over the course of many hours, Scott and Jason explained every detail of the two space vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership and launch platform and SpaceShipOne, the actual passenger vehicle. While the whole program is certainly high security, they held nothing back once they observed that I understood everything I was seeing. Imagine my joy at such a generous offer.

pic1Images: courtesy Virgin Galactic

Here’s a simple explanation of how to get to space. WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership, carries SpaceShipOne under it’s wing. The mothership takes off from the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico like an ordinary jet airliner, climbs to around 50,000′ and releases the passenger vehicle. A rocket motor then fires to shoot SpaceShipOne straight up into space where the passengers experience many minutes of weightlessness while coasting upward to airless space, then falling back to re-enter earth atmosphere where at around 65,000′ the atmosphere is thick enough for the vehicle to then glide down to a normal landing. Passengers can leave their seats to float weightless while viewing the blackness of space and the brilliant view of earth below. Beam me up Scotty!

SpaceShipOne is very clever in how it can shoot straight up and safely return to earth without burning up like a meteor. I’m not going to explain it – you’re going to have to visit Virgin’s internet site to learn it for yourself. As an added treat, Virgin’s engineers planned a show and tell session where Michael showed off his R2D2 live and revealed how it’s built. I also did a briefing about Disney Imagineering and how both organization do indeed accomplish breakthrough “rides” in parallel design philosophies.


In exchange for our visit to Virgin Galactic I later gave Scott and Jason a full day tour of the Disneyland Resort, since Jason had never taken time out from his busy flight test schedule to experience Disneyland. Naturally the guys just had to try out Disney’s hottest attraction, Radiator Springs Racers. I’ve made a lot of exciting facility tours of every kind over the past 60 years, but seeing a real Ride Attraction like Virgin Galactic is my dream favorite. Thank you guys.

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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."