Space Virgin takes flight

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Falling neatly into the ‘I Want (to go on) One of Those’ category Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo, called the VSS Enterprise has fled the nest of its twin fuselage four turbofan-powered WhiteKnightTwo mothership Eve and glided down to land on its own for the first time at Mojave Air and Space Port in California, USA.

VSS Enterprise is designed to carry six passengers and fly at up to Mach 3.5 at 68 miles altitude, just under a third of the way up to the International Space Station. The first test release was at 45,000ft; just 5000ft lower than the planned unhook altitude for its rocket ascent into a sub-orbital trajectory. In the video you see a relatively steep angle of approach but then a very long flare in a smooth landing. Not shown was an earlier mock approach conducted at altitude by pilot Pete Siebold and co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

Virgin Galactic states it has 370 passengers in the queue and ticket deposits on hand of $50m, which at a guess means some have paid to join the fast-track. The starting price for a standard space ticket is $200,000, which sounds a lot but is small change compared to thumbing a lift on a Soyuz up to the ISS; about $19.8m less by all accounts although they does include going fully orbital with a stay to discover the delights of zero gravity toilets and the like. If you are fascinated check out Space Adventures or even the website of Dr Charles Simonyi, who liked the experience so much he did it twice. You can even apply (given a fare supplement, presumably) to be the “first private citizen to undertake a space walk”, which sounds fun but might not be that much of a claim, given that other non-military types can claim an EVA on their CV.

The futuristic Foster-designed $200m Spaceport in New Mexico will be state-funded, which will no doubt help to keep costs in check. Even that number seems a little bit interesting when realising the cost of a single Space Shuttle flight could build nearly eight of them, provided of course the land could be obtained at desert pricing.

Test fire of the hybrid rocket motor for the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo project
Test fire of the hybrid rocket motor for the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo project. Image Virgin Galactic
The next significant step in the programme will to flight test the hybrid rocket motor that powers SpaceShipTwo; fuelled by nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and a rubber compound this unit appears to be about as revolutionary as the rest of Bert Rutan’s ingenious creations at Scaled Composites. How many ‘burnin’ rubber’ headlines will get written one wonders?

I love hunkering down with a good book on the Apollo programme and have chalked up a couple of slack-jawed visits to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I remember watching grainy images of the moon landing on my primary school TV and four decades later continue to admire the efforts of those crop-headed double-degree test pilots who sat on top of giant missiles, something they still need to do to this day.

It might not be proven yet whether VSS Enterprise will represent space for the 21st Century or the ultimate fairground ride. But in context of the soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle and what somehow feels like the regressive step NASA is taking towards capsules with the Boeing CST-100 project it is definitely very different, especially as many of the leading Virgin rocketeers have distinctly British accents.

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