First Rocket-Powered Flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

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White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo directly overhead during a flyby at Spaceport America. Photo credit: Jeff Foust

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo directly overhead during a flyby at Spaceport America. Photo credit: Jeff Foust

Always wanted to take a trip to space? Monday’s powered flight of entrepreneur Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo takes us one step closer to a future where civilian space travel is as common as hopping on an airplane is today. Branson’s Virgin Galactic offers tickets to ride on 6-passenger SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space once flight tests are complete.

Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo: Burn, Baby, Burn

At 7:02 am local time on April 29, 2013, mother ship WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California — with SpaceShipTwo held mid-wing between its two fuselages. Mother ship WK2, manned by Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, co-pilot Clint Nichols and flight test engineer Brian Maisler, reached an altitude of 46,000 feet. Then it released its precious cargo.

Free from the mother ship, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) glided unpowered. Pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Mike Alsbury cross-checked data and verified stable control of their 60-foot long craft. Thumbs up. They triggered ignition of SS2’s rocket motor. The hybrid rocket engines roared for 16 glorious seconds. The thrust propelled the spacecraft to an altitude of 55,000 feet and a supersonic speed of Mach 1.2 — the first commercial vehicle to exceed the speed of sound since the now defunct Concorde.

This is SS2’s 26th test flight and the first to fire its rocket engines, a major milestone for the private spaceflight industry. Relief and elation are felt all around.

According to the Mojave Press release:

The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight . . .  We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

Ten minutes later, SS2, its engines off, glides to a smooth landing in Mojave.

The successful SS2 powered flight brings the project closer to its goal of licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration. But before the SS2 is open to the flying public, it must repeat powered flight, conduct test flights to space, and verify repeated reliability and safe operation.

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