White Knight Courts Virgin

Will you book a ticket to ride?

Tim Beyers
Tim Beyers
Jul 30, 2008 at 12:00AM

When Sir Richard Branson first started a 70-mile club for the rich and extremely adventurous, it felt to me like Pan Am all over again; an eccentric rich guy selling tickets to suborbital space, rather than the Moon. But now Branson's starry-eyed dream is beginning to look real.

On Monday, Branson's space venture -- Virgin Galactic (great name) -- unveiled WhiteKnightTwo, which will act as a carrier for SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital vessel built by Scaled Composites. This, by the way, is same group that led the design of SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

Even more interesting: WhiteKnightTwo is a made entirely of composite materials, lightweight alternatives that perform like steel without the weight. Kevlar -- the stuff of bulletproof vests -- is the most common form of composite material. Ceradyne (NASDAQ:CRDN) is using composites for its body armor. Boeing (NYSE:BA) has considered composite plastics for its 787 Dreamliner.

What stirs my soul as a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers team is that, if successfully tested, WhiteKnightTwo will prove that composites are perfectly usable for building high-altitude aircraft. Imagine how that might transform the airline industry.

During the second quarter, UAL's (NASDAQ:UAUA) United Airlines spent approximately 34% of revenue on aircraft fuel. AMR's (NYSE:AMR) American, Delta (NYSE:DAL), and Northwest are no better off. Modernizing the fleets of each with fuel-efficient aircraft -- planes made of composites -- would be a welcome change.

We investors tend to think of conglomerates when it comes to space. Firms like Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and Rockwell Collins, for example. We're even guilty of this shorthand at Rule Breakers; Orbital Sciences (NYSE:ORB) is one of our more recent scorecard winners. What Virgin reminds us in finding its White Knight is that the best investing opportunities are often found in adjacent or unrelated industries.

Put differently: Your Big Bertha, and thereby, your investment in Callaway Golf, wouldn't mean much if it weren't for the space-shuttle material used to make it more pliable.

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