Space tourism craft reaches glide-test milestone (Update)

May 04, 2011
This image provided by the Clay Center Observatory/Virgin Galactic shows SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave, Calif., Wednesday May 4, 2011. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (AP Photo/Virgin Galactic/Clay Center Observatory, Mark Greenberg)

High over the Mojave Desert, the stubby-winged SpaceShipTwo bent itself into a near-right angle shape and plunged nearly straight downward for more than a minute before unfolding and gliding to a runway landing before an excited crowd.

The test flight Wednesday marked another milestone in Virgin Galactic's effort to be the first company to carry tourists into space.

"What an awesome way to start the day. SpaceShipTwo looked positively beautiful today on her maiden feathered flight!" Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic vice president for special projects, said in a tweet.

During the test, SpaceShipTwo did not fire its rocket engine for a climb into space. Instead, a mothership lifted it to 52,000 feet where it was released. It then rotated its twin tail booms upward 65 degrees, Virgin Galactic said.

As SpaceShipTwo descended almost vertically through the sky, it was slowed by the drag of the folded tail, similar to the way feathers slow a badminton shuttlecock. The reconfiguration will be a critical part of the spaceship's descent through Earth's atmosphere after suborbital trips into space.

At 34,000 feet, pilots returned SpaceShipTwo to its normal configuration and landed it like an airplane. The demonstration from release to touchdown lasted 11 minutes, including 75 seconds in the "feathered" mode.

"It flew stably," said Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides.

SpaceShipTwo is based on Burt Rutan's award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004.

Rutan retired last month from Scaled Composites, a company he founded that built and is testing SpaceShipTwo for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo's unique re-entry has been touted by aerospace experts as a way to overcome the problem of searing heat that other types of spacecraft face when they plunge back into the atmosphere at high speed.

NASA's space shuttles need a layer of thermal tiles and Russia's Soyuz rockets employ heat shields to insulate against damage during re-entry.

Another key test for SpaceShipTwo will come when engineers start powered flights into space, expected sometime this year. Until now, all the tests have been unpowered glide flights.

No date has been set for the first commercial flight from a custom-built spaceport in New Mexico.

Some 410 people have paid the full $200,000 or a deposit for a chance to experience a few minutes of weightlessness, according to Virgin Galactic.

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1 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
yay, another test flight. Pardon my lack of enthusiasm, but you could fill a book with all the 'test flights' done by various companies. I know that this is a necessary part of proving the ship air/spaceworthy and all, but 7 years of incremental steps lose their lustre. Please announce some big stuff any day now.
1.8 / 5 (5) May 04, 2011
I would have to agree, the progress has been painfully slow on this. I remember when Virgin announced the deal with Scaled Composites to build SpaceShip Two, and they had projected a space ready date for late 2008. Here we are, 2011, and test flights are still being done. I guess whatever number private space industry gives, we take that number and double it to get the true value.
5 / 5 (3) May 04, 2011
Testing is indeed a lengthy process. Remember, though, that ultimately Virgin's goal is to make money by selling seats, and they are bound to lose a lot of business if people start dying up there.
4 / 5 (4) May 04, 2011
These craft need to be FAA certified before they're allowed to carry passengers, IIRC. Lots of tests and tweaks are needed for this, and the parts don't come off of a grocery shelf.

Do you think it would go any quicker if it was NASA doing it?
1.8 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
Nasa formed in 1958. It landed a man on the moon in 1969. Sooooo slow. Yeah right, lmao. When conservatards are confronted with evidence of government success they simply ignore it or maybe their brains just can't process it. I don't know. Wish they'd shut the hell up though.
1 / 5 (1) May 05, 2011
Depends on your definition of success...
Yes, NASA did it in 11 years, but employed over 400,000 people, spent (original estimate of $7B) >$25B ~$170B in 2005 dollars), killed 3 astronauts and eventually lost the technology rather than build on it... This business model would not be successful for Virgin Galactic. (source of numbers: wikipedia)
1.8 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
NASA wasn't operating according to a business model because NASA wasn't and isn't a business. Not everything has to be done for a profit. And employing 400,000 is a bad thing? Oh that's right, government jobs aren't real jobs according to your arbitrary definition.

Wish they'd shut the hell up though.
5 / 5 (1) May 05, 2011
But included in that money, NASA sent a bunch of people up into space before getting them to the moon. As part of all that money, had to develop all that technology from scratch, as opposed to already having developed it with a working prototype. Going to the moon is far harder than taking a quick trip 60 miles up. The three people who died on the ground is akin to the accident that virgin galactic had in the hanger, and has virtually nothing to do with the flightworthiness of the machine. The magnitude of difference in the relative difficulties of these situations makes your comparison to the moonlanding pointless. This is far simpler and easier than landing on the moon.
not rated yet May 06, 2011
This thing isn't capable of re-entry from earth orbit and it never will be. Bleeding off all that speed cannot be done by something that has no thermal protection.
All they will be able to do is lift wealthy paying passengers to the edge of space and set them back down again.