March 22, 2010 at 7:20 PM ET
Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached between the twin fuselages of its
WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, as seen from below during Monday's test flight
from California's Mojave Air and Space Port.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane took to the air for the first time this morning from California's Mojave Air and Space Port.
The craft, which has been christened the VSS Enterprise, remained firmly attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane throughout the nearly three-hour test flight. It will take many months of further tests before SpaceShipTwo actually goes into outer space. Nevertheless, today's outing marks an important milestone along a path that could take paying passengers to the final frontier as early as 2011 or 2012.
The captive-carry flight comes three and a half months after SpaceShipTwo's unveiling in Mojave. The project, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, builds upon the first-ever private-sector spaceflights, flown five years ago by the SpaceShipOne prototype plane. Both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo were designed by aerospace guru Burt Rutan, founder of Mojave-based Scaled Composites.
Today's test, piloted by Scaled Composites' Mark Stucky, was the first in a series aimed at checking the aerodynamics of the rocket plane in a controlled, real-world environment. The configuration for SpaceShipTwo is significantly different from that for SpaceShipOne (which is now hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum) and its WhiteKnightOne mothership. SpaceShipOne was slung right beneath WhiteKnightOne's fuselage, while SpaceShipTwo rides between WhiteKnightTwo's twin fuselages.
Virgin Galactic's spaceflight profile calls for the rocket to be taken up to around 50,000 feet in altitude, where it would be released from the mothership. SpaceShipTwo would then fire up its own rocket engine for the final push to space. But for these initial captive-carry tests, the rocket plane will stay attached to WhiteKnightTwo.
Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane takes to the air for a test flight on
Monday, firmly connected to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane.
When Rutan and his team are confident that they've tweaked the design to optimize its flightworthiness, they'll move on to the next phase of testing: unpowered glide tests, during which WhiteKnightTwo will release SpaceShipTwo (and its pilot) for a gliding flight back down to the Mojave runway.
That phase will lead to an even more ambitious series of flights, scheduled to start next year, during which SpaceShipTwo will light up its hybrid rocket engine. Eventually those powered test flights will push the plane beyond the sound barrier - and beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.
Passenger operations won't begin until a goodly number of test flights have broken the space barrier. No firm date has been set, but the conventional wisdom is currently focusing on late 2011 or early 2012. "Test flights will pace the program," Virgin Galactic's operations manager, Julie Tizard, said last year at a spaceflight conference in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic's test program is being conducted out of Mojave, where Rutan's Scaled Composites has its home base. However, the passenger flights will likely be run out of New Mexico's Spaceport America, which is currently under construction.
Executives at Virgin Galactic have consistently said no paying passengers will be taken on until they're confident that the flights measure up to their safety standards. Branson and his family are to be among the first spacefliers.
More than 330 people have already put down deposits toward the $200,000 fare for a tour package - an adventure that will feature a rocket-powered roller-coaster ride, several minutes of weightlessness, and a commanding view of the curving Earth beneath the blackness of space.
Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic
An in-flight closeup shows SpaceShipTwo riding between WhiteKnightTwo's twin
fuselages. This SpaceShipTwo plane has been christened the Enterprise, and the
WhiteKnightTwo is named Eve, after Virgin founder Richard Branson's mother.
Click on the picture for a larger view that clearly shows the "Eve" mascots.
Here's the full news release from Virgin Galactic, with quotes from Rutan and Branson:
"Virgin Galactic announced today that its commercial manned spaceship, VSS Enterprise, this morning successfully completed its first 'captive carry' test flight, taking off at 07:05 am (PST) from Mojave Air and Spaceport, California.
"The spaceship was unveiled to the public for the first time on December 7th 2009 and named by Governors [Arnold] Schwarzenegger [of California] and [New Mexico's Bill] Richardson. VSS Enterprise remained attached to its unique WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, for the duration of the 2 hours 54 minutes flight, achieving an altitude of 45,000 feet (13716 meters).
"Both vehicles are being developed for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, by Mojave based Scaled Composites. Founded by Burt Rutan, Scaled developed SpaceShipOne which in 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft. Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles share much of the same basic design but are being built to carry six fare-paying passengers on suborbital space flights, allowing an out-of-the-seat zero gravity experience and offering astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space.
"Virgin Galactic has already taken around $45 million in deposits for spaceflight reservations from over 330 people wanting to experience space for themselves.
"The first flight of VSS Enterprise is another major milestone in an exhaustive flight testing program, which started with the inaugural flight of VMS Eve in 2008 and is at the heart of Virgin Galactic’s commitment to safety.
"Commenting on the historic flight, Burt Rutan said: 'This is a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams. The captive-carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program.'
"Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, added: 'Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us, but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us. It comes as no surprise that the flight went so well; the Scaled team is uniquely qualified to bring this important and incredible dream to reality. Today was another major step along that road and a testament to US engineering and innovation.'
"The VSS Enterprise test flight program will continue though 2010 and 2011, progressing from captive carry to independent glide and then powered flight, prior to the start of commercial operations."
Virgin Galactic's business plan calls for building five SpaceShipTwo planes and two WhiteKnightTwo carriers, with options for more.
More about SpaceShipTwo:
This report was last updated at 2:45 p.m. ET March 23.
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