First Flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic, the private aerospace company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, successfully tested the passenger space-plane SpaceShipTwo today. SpaceShipTwo (SS2), is also called the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, or VSS Enterprise, an obvious tribute to another space vehicle of some note. SS2 was carried to 45,000 feet (13.7km) by its mothership, named WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), or ‘Eve’, after Branson’s mother. In this initial ‘captive carry’ test of the space plane, it remained attached to the mothership for the duration of the flight.

The SS2/WK2 combo took off from a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and flew for approximately three hours over the deserts of the Antelope Valley. SS2 is a prototype passenger vehicle that is designed to take astronauts to suborbital flight. If the remaining tests go as planned, it will eventually take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to the edge of space, at just over 100km (62 miles).This may happen as early as the end of 2011.

SpaceShipTwo is an all-carbon composite plane that uses a hybrid rocket motor, and will be carried to 50,000 feet (15.2 km) by WhiteKnightTwo before being released. It will then fire the rocket to propel it above the Karman line.

Here’s a video of the takeoff and landing of SS2 today:

SS2 was unveiled to the public in December of last year, and this is the first in a series of tests to determine how safe and operational the craft is before it can begin to bring passengers into space. It will undergo another captive carry flight to 50,000 feet, and then will be brought into the air by WK2 and released in subsequent tests.

SpaceShipTwo was designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, who also led the design team for SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million in 2004 for completing the first series of manned commercial spaceflights.

If you have $200,000 laying around and want to go into space, SS2 is your space plane. However, you’re going to have to get in line: over 300 people have already signed up for seats on the plane.

Source:, Virgin Galactic

22 Replies to “First Flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo”

  1. “However, nobody seems to care what Branson is doing…”

    Virgin Galactic is doing really different business than SpaceX and Orbital – sending people with cash (tourists?) to the edge of space. SS2 is (will be) only capable to suborbital flying, reaching a stable orbit requires a lot more energy. Virgin does have some vague plans about reaching orbit eventually, but that will not happen any time soon. NASA needs the latter, now.

  2. Suborbital, lame.Personally I will be impressed when the private sector makes orbital flights, until then it is just a really high airplane ride.

  3. Interesting,

    One of the worries of Obama’s plan to leave manned spaceflight in the hands of industry, is safety and getting commercial vehicles human-rated.

    However, nobody seems to care what Branson is doing…

  4. Sigh, I’ve done the obvious jokes here already. But good going!

    @ flogger11:

    I don’t think it’s lame, for the following reasons:

    – It is a huge market. That would really be enough, but further:

    – All the elements of space flight is there; non-aerodynamic flight requirement, space visit, weightlessness, seeing Earth curvature&dimensions. It is very much _not_ an airplane ride.

    – It is difficult enough. Orbiting at double the height (because orbiting at the same height is too difficult) would take a lot more infrastructure (fuel/stages, heat shielding) and testing. I believe someone said it takes at least an order of magnitude larger vehicle.

    Undoubtedly we will get there too, as there is a market interest as well. (One guy will already repeat his orbital adventure!) But presumably there will on the order of 1 company for every 10 suborbital – or at least 1 trip for every 100 suborbital. (Because they will be 100 times more expensive.)

    @ Silenus:

    The difficulties in getting approval has been, as for SpaceX, a time constraining factor AFAIU.

    I also believe so far the requirements on the commercial industry has been the same as on governmental agencies.

    That said, there have been articles mentioning that work is ongoing to streamline the process. At least as for orbital vehicles there seems to be a lot of confusion who decides what, there are several agencies involved.

    As usual, the government isn’t exactly prepared for the commercial sectors requirement for speed and efficiency (low cost).

  5. Calling this lame is like saying the Wright brothers’ flight was a waste of time because it wasn’t a transatlantic fare-paying one.

    The aim of these ventures may be to generate money for companies but developments will be made more efficiently than huge governmental bodies, and alternative technologies will result far more speedily than would be possible with current methods.

    The US was founded on a spirit of adventure which is why people like Richard Branson risk the huge amounts invested. I look forward to a renewed interest in space travel, thanks to the private companies involvements.

    The UK is actually announcing a Space Agency today, which demonstrates how far our head is up our butt. Go USA!

    It’s also another good excuse to vacation in the States, as if I needed one πŸ™‚

  6. I wouldn’t call this lame. Like any other craft, it has to go through a series of tests required by the FAA. This is one of them. It will also have to be taken up and dropped from altitude a few times in different meteorological conditions. Just another step in the ladder of required testing.

    Although, I agree this isn’t all that exciting. Getting an aircraft up to 100km and back down isn’t a great achievement.
    A craft which is designed to orbit the Earth even one time must more complex than this simple aircraft with a rocket attached to it, and yet even more complex to maintain orbit.

    Something I don’t believe the Obama administration quite understands. The commercial sector is more than 10 years away from creating an orbital vehcle… if they can manage the funding, or there is some new spectacular propulsion system developed.

  7. And let it be 10 years away! Or more! The last thing we need is another Challenger/Columbia disaster but with paying customers onboard. Certification and safety in air travel (most certainly space travel!) is a long painstaking process that took civil aviation 70 years to perfect. And it’s still not perfect.

    However, the process for certifying SS2 is built upon those 70 years of experience in air travel. I’m certain the FAA is doing their best to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers.

  8. If you are saying commercial aviation isn’t perfected because of accidents… then we haven’t perfected commercial bus/auto, train, boat, etc. Basically no transportation is perfected… not even walking.
    Accidents are going to happen with anything, and this is a risk everyone has to accept when stepping on board any device used for transport, and for that matter… stepping out of your house.

  9. Seems that a turf war has broken out between NASA and the FAA as to what agency will be in charge of safety , testing and operation of these ‘tourist-in-space’ flights:

    According to the WSJ article “Congress hasn’t yet voted on White House proposals to outsource manned space flights to private enterprise, but the concept already is prompting a bureaucratic tussle over which federal agency should be responsible for ensuring the safety of such flights. The Federal Aviation Administration believes it should be the agency in charge, while National Aeronautics and Space Administration believes the flights fall under its jurisdiction. The dispute came into public view Thursday during a hearing of a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee. The panel’s chairman, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, home to thousands of NASA jobs, indicated that he views the space agency as the final arbiter of astronaut safety.”

    Let’s hope this will not become (another) protracted problem.

  10. @ Aodhhan:

    You shouldn’t take my “perfection” so literally. But since you’ve brought it up, I should clarify. I meant specifically the “process” of certifying an aircraft to civil aviation safety standards. Yes, accidents happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. But mitigating risk through a well developed quality control mechanism will save the lives of those involved in “design and operation” related incidents. Nothing can stop the lightning from hitting the aircraft (nothing yet anyways πŸ˜‰ but you can design the fuselage to take the load, protect the passengers and dissipate it safely. You’ve got to admit that’s one step towards “perfection” no?

    I’m just hoping that a similar process is being conducted on SS2. And yes, it’s a totally different vehicle, but some of what we’ve learned in aviation can be applied here.

  11. @ Jon:

    Thanks for that article. I would hope the two would for a commitee (how very cliche) and work together to work out the kinks. They would both benefit from each other’s experience in this. Fingers crossed.

  12. The White Knight II has at least two missions it can accomplish. 1) Suborbital tourist industry related flights and Low gravity experiment packages. 2) Spaceship II is not its only payload.

    Yes suborbital flights are within reach.. and orbital too! Think X-37B with rocket/hypersonic engine combo.. which upon reaching the top of its trajectory ejects a smaller orbital payload/rocket combo… say one big enough to carry an astronaut?

  13. @bonan…
    In that case I totally agree with you. It is why I believe it will take civilian industry 10 years. It is already taking NASA more than 5 years to work the replacement for the Shuttle (which is likely to burn). The civilian industry… outside maybe Boeing, doesn’t have the expertise… and spreading out NASA’s expertise among competing commercial industries will further delay any projects… not to mention all the rules and regulations commerce would have to create and follow, something NASA has already been through and has completed.

    Sure… if you don’t consider safety, we can easily get a contraption up the the shuttle in 3 years… but no way can they do it once regulation kicks in.

  14. I know this is a cheap comment, but I do hope Branson’s space plane service has rather better customer care than his broadband and trains.

  15. @SteveZodiac
    @Andy F

    Typical British organisation. How the hell did we ever manage to get an empire together, or perhaps that was before the Civil Service. We lost it quick enough πŸ™‚

    I notice another Andy F, so I’d better change my moniker to avoid confusion. As to the comment about Branson’s customer care; if anything goes wrong up there, it’s unlikely the customers will be in any state to complain directly.

  16. @ Aodhhan
    10 years? No way. If there is a market, the buisness will come. Fast.
    Consider the airplane. The airplane was an untested machine. Until the 1920s, no one had any idea just why they flew. Yet a mere 14 years later they were being used commercially- and were being used frequently by entrepreneurs before that.
    Consider the train. In 1804, the first locomotive was built. It was integrated into existing infrastructure and made it’s debut faster than any technological device in that century.
    We know how to build a rocket. There are already a dozen companies and as many space agencies around the world capable of liftoff. We have airports with looong runways. We have launch pads (courtesy of NASA). Infrastructure. This isn’t the 1920s or the 1800s. Spaceflight will take off fast- mark my words.

  17. @Tauridborn
    There are soooo many differences between a spacecraft which simply goes up and comes down, and one which must get into orbit. I’m not talking only about the speed difference… and to get something to maintain orbit and sustain life, is a HUGE challenge. Remember.. we aren’t just talking about the safety of the pilots/astronauts on board, but tourists as well. Every kilo of weight you add to increase capability and envelope, adds to the complexity.
    That is just the physical aspect… then you have to consider the regulation, policy, procedures for testing the craft… which have yet to be put into place for orbital vehicles.
    Do you realize the FAA tests an aircraft for nearly 2 years before it is certified (and this is if there aren’t too many findings)? How much and how long do you think the tests will be for an orbital spacecraft?
    …and as I said before… outside Boeing, no company has done much SERIOUS research and development; which means it will take the average company 3-5 years just to get something from the drawing board and out the door… again, if there are no problems… which is unlikely.

    Just look at how long it is taking NASA, who has been in the business for a long time… to get the next generation of manned spacecraft off the ground. It doesn’t happen in just a few years… it takes nearly a decade. If it only took a few years, it would already be heading for the moon, since G. W. Bush approved the program quite a long time ago.

  18. Private companies with orbital capabilities will not take 10 years. SpaceX already has unmanned orbital capabilities, and a contract to deliver resupplies of cargo to the ISS.

    They are proceeding with Falcon 9 and have plans to test the manned Dragon capsule this year:

    Plans call for the testing program for Dragon to be completed within 2 to 3 years.

  19. I hope I am proven wrong, and a company can have a fully functional and certified craft to carry passengers within 10 years. However, I know there is a huge difference between launching a satellite into any of the various orbits, and launching a craft which carries many individuals, into a functional orbit, and then have the capabiility to drift towards to the space station. The complications with the additonal weight alone are more than most people realize…. and have you even thought about re-entry? Re-entry is just as complicated as launching. Some believe it is more so. There is also maneuvering and drifting to various locations in orbit. Contrary to popular belief… you cannot just blast your spacecraft from one location to another in orbit.

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