Private spaceliner takes off for inaugural test flight
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: March 22, 2010
Slung beneath a jet-driven twin-fuselage mothership, Virgin Galactic's six-passenger rocket plane took off for its first flight Monday morning, kicking off a year of increasingly ambitious tests before the craft begins carrying tourists to the edge of space.
The duo soared to an altitude of 45,000 feet after taking off at 7:05 a.m. PDT (1405 GMT) from its home base in Mojave, Calif.
VSS Enterprise, which was unveiled in a ceremony Dec. 7, is the first copy of the SpaceShipTwo design that Virgin Galactic plans to launch on commercial flights beginning in late 2011 or early 2012. Each SpaceShipTwo craft will carry up to six passengers and two pilots per mission.
The VMS Eve, or WhiteKnightTwo, carrier plane and SpaceShipTwo were designed and built by Scaled Composites, established in 1982 by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan.
WhiteKnightTwo has a wingspan of 140 feet and SpaceShipTwo measures 60 feet long. Both vehicles are larger versions of their predecessors, which captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 after completing two flights of a private reusable manned spacecraft within two weeks.
"This is a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams," Rutan said in a statement. "The captive carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be [an] extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program."
Virgin Galactic was founded by famed businessman Richard Branson to take high-flying, adventure-seeking tourists on brief jaunts to the edge of space more than 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above the Earth's surface.
"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," Branson said. "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 U.S. engineering and innovation."
But before passengers are permitted to travel aboard SpaceShipTwo, officials say they will complete a series of flight tests in 2010 and 2011 to ensure the system is safe for tourists. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have not set a timetable for the further tests.
"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," the Virgin Galactic statement said.
More captive carry flights are planned in the coming months, followed by free-flying glide tests and finally powered flights.
During the final phase of testing, VMS Eve will lift SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the spacecraft will be dropped from the mothership and light its hybrid rocket motor to propel itself up to 316,000 feet above the planet.
Passengers will achieve about five minutes of weightlessness during SpaceShipTwo flights before plummeting back into the atmosphere and gliding to a runway landing.
Virgin Galactic will launch commercial SpaceShipTwo flights from the Spaceport America facility under construction in the New Mexico desert.