The VARI*LITE® VLX™ Wash survives a monumental unveiling
Published Wednesday, March 24, 2010
by Bryan Matthews

On Monday, December 7th, Virgin Galactic unveiled the world’s first commercial spacecraft. With hundreds of spectators, media, and invited guests gathered at the Mojave Air & Space Port, lighting designer John Featherstone and the creative team at Lightswitch were challenged by Virgin Galactic to create a high-powered lighting design that would beautifully showcase the VSS Enterprise while keeping in line with the eco-friendly standards set forth by Sir Richard Branson. To meet these standards, Featherstone and his team chose 24 VARI*LITE® VLX™ Wash luminaires supplied by Upstaging, Inc.

“We have done a lot of projects with Virgin in the past and we fully support their commitment to using the best in eco-friendly technologies,” began Featherstone. “This project will always stand-out because of the sheer magnitude of what was being unveiled and the worldwide attention it would receive. We knew this would be a challenging event especially when you put it in the desert, but working together with the event producers Group Delphi, it was a challenge we were definitely ready to tackle.”

First opened in 1935 as a small, rural airfield, the Mojave Air and Space Port has since become a world renowned flight research center covering 3300 acres. For the grand unveiling, the VSS Enterprise would taxi down the runway aboard its mothership 767 aircraft, which is used to escort the VSS into the upper atmosphere, and as the two ships approached, Virgin Galactic wanted a high-powered light show to fully enhance the showcase of this monumental occasion. And that’s exactly what Lightswitch planned to give them.

“Our goal was to give them a light show which could be seen for miles across the desert and our creative and talented team would be put to the test to develop an overall concept that was utterly unforgettable. As we began selecting the exact fixtures we would use in the lighting design, we had to keep three main attributes in mind at all times; eco-friendly technology, power, and the ability to maintain performance amidst the challenges presented by operating outdoors in the desert. To keep in line with the Green initiatives, I looked at a number of LED fixtures on the market and the VLX Wash is significantly brighter than all of them. Plus, when you add in the solid-state and full-enclosure design, the VLX Wash was a perfect fit.”

With his choice now made, Featherstone and his team turned their attention to setting up the lighting that would serve as the primary backdrop for the unveiling. With a mandatory 100’ safety zone surrounding the VSS Enterprise at all times, this is where the light output power elements for each luminaire would prove a necessity and this is where the VLX Wash luminaire did not disappoint.

“Due to safety restrictions, the throw distances for lighting were anywhere from 150 to 200 feet. The lighting that we chose had to be able to easily handle the throw distances, which is why a lot of LED fixtures simply would not work for us. The VLX Wash is bright, powerful, and amidst the LED market its brightness is incomparable.”

As is standard with airport runways, the runway used by the VSS Enterprise had a 180’ wide x 20’ high blast wall. This wall could serve as a primary lighting projection area for the unveiling, but had a corrugated and reflective surface that would prove difficult for many LED automated luminaires to evenly light without any color-breakups or shadowing. This challenge was no match for the VLX Wash.

“The VLX Wash was a great choice for this project because of the internal beam homogenization system. There was a fantastic richness of color on the curved blast wall, with beautiful color saturation, and no color-shadowing effects whatsoever. This was absolutely the right fixture for the job.”

But as if the throw distances, uneven projection surfaces, desert sand, and mandates to utilize the latest in eco-friendly technologies were not enough to overcome, the unveiling of the VSS Enterprise fell victim to the harsh weather conditions of the Mojave Desert. On the night of the event, unexpected and rapidly approaching gale force winds prompted the quick evacuation of all attendees, but the fast-moving storm could not take down the VLX Wash.

“As the weather conditions began to turn extreme, we knew that the guest tents were only rated for 70 mph winds. Once it became apparent those safety ratings were going to be surpassed, we quickly went to work to evacuate everyone safely. The most amazing part was to see the site destruction, but the VLX Wash still operating. When all the other lights had failed due to wind and rain, the solid-state construction of the VLX kept it powered and working. That visual speaks volumes to the reliability of the VLX Wash. It’s a fantastic fixture.”

At the end of the event, Featherstone and his team were thrilled that no one got injured in the rapid evacuation. Just as the tents were literally blown-away by gale force winds, Featherstone was figuratively blown-away by the performance of the VLX Wash luminaire.

“By working with a great team from both Group Delphi and Lightswitch, and by having great product on the event from Upstaging, we were able to effectively overcome all the demands of such a large-scale and high-profile event. I can’t say enough about the VLX Wash and how it fit into embracing the use of environmentally-friendly technologies mandated by the Green initiatives of Virgin Galactic. Normally with lighting fixtures, a designer has to sacrifice power and performance for environmental sustainability, but not with the VLX Wash. It’s bright and powerful with great VARI*LITE color and low power consumption. And it proved during this event that it won’t break down. Now that’s a great light.”

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