Virgin Galactic, one of the companies in the lead for developing the world's first commercial tourist space flight business, says it has just successfully completed the first piloted free flight of SpaceShipTwo, alias the "VSS Enterprise." The spaceship was released from its mothership at an altitude of 45,000 feet.
During its first flight this past weekend, the spaceship carried out a clean release of the spaceship from its mothership, flew free, and glided back and landed at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin is employing Burt Rutan's successful SpaceShipOne model, winner of the Ansari X Prize for achieving suborbital flight, for its fleet of spacecraft. For $200,000 a ticket, passengers will be taken into suborbital flight -- crossing the 62-mile threshold into space and achieving weightlessness for about five minutes. The spacecraft will then glide softly back to terra firma.
Virgin reports that other detailed objectives of the flight were successfully completed, including verification that all systems worked prior and following the clean release of Enterprise; initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics; qualitative evaluation of stability and control of SS2 against predictions from design and simulation work; verification of performance by evaluating the lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight; practice a landing approach at altitude and finally descend and land.
Preparations for the milestone flight were extensive. The WhiteKnightTwo mothership (Eve) flew 40 times including four "captive carry" flights of spaceship and mothership mated together. The most recent captive carry was on September 30th. The most recent solo flight was on October 5th and demonstrated that all the systems required for a free flight by the VSS Enterprise were functioning correctly without any safety issues.
“The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders," according to Pete Siebold, one of the two test pilots on board the flight, and an employee of Scaled Composites, the company that designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin.
Virgin Galactic reports that it now has 370 paid bookings for its first space flights, with customer deposits totaling $50 million. Future commercial operations will be at Spaceport America in New Mexico where final preparations are taking place for a finished runway inauguration ceremony on October 22nd. The remaining steps are for Virgin Galactic to obtain its Federal Aviation Administration license and complete the testing phase, the company says. This may take another year, so regularly scheduled commercial spaceflight may actually commence by 2012.