SpaceShipTwo Fires Rocket Engines for First Ever Supersonic Test Flight- Photos & Video

SpaceShipTwo fires her rocket motor in flight for 1st time on April 29, 2013. Credit: MarsScientific.com

SpaceShipTwo fires her rocket motor in flight for 1st time on April 29, 2013. Credit: MarsScientific.com
Updated with more Photos & Video[/caption]

In a momentous and long awaited day in spaceflight, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) commercial spaceliner named “Enterprise” lit up her hybrid rocket engines in flight and reached supersonic speeds for the first time in history, today, Monday, April 29, 2013 – in the skies over the Mojave Desert in California.

“What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness Virgin Galactic go faster than the speed of sound,” wrote Virgin Galacic founder and owner, billionaire Sir Richard Branson, a short while ago.

Branson wants to bring the incomparable joys of human spaceflight– including weightlessness and spectacular views of the Earth’s curvature- to the masses. Thus making science fiction fantasies of the future like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Trek” a reality – TODAY!

“This is a momentous day and the single most important flight test to date for our Virgin Galactic program,” said Branson from the Mojave Air and Space Port. “What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness Virgin Galactic go faster than the speed of sound.”

ShaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic fires its rocket engines for the first time in history on April 29, 2013 to achieve supersonic speed. Credit: Virgin Galactic
ShaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic fires its rocket engines for the first time in history on April 29, 2013 to achieve supersonic speed. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The SpaceShipTwo test of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was conducted by builder Scaled Composites, led by famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, and Virgin Galactic.

With Scaled Composites test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury at the helm, the engine burn lasted about 16 seconds, exactly as planned and achieved a speed of Mach 1.2 – breaking the sound barrier!

Watch this video of today’s SS2 rocket test flight:

The test flight began at about 7:02 a.m. local California time as SpaceShipTwo took off from Mojave strapped to the belly of the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mothership.

SS2 was released from the mothership at an altitude of 47,000 feet (14 km) some 45 minutes into the flight.

“The pilots triggered ignition of the rocket motor, causing the main oxidizer valve to open and igniters to fire within the fuel case. At this point, SS2 was propelled forward and upward to a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet [17 km],” said Virgin Galactic in a statement.

SS2 is powered by RocketMotorTwo, developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation – which is also constructing the manned DreamChaser mini shuttle ‘space taxi’ under contract to NASA and aiming to restart launches of American astronauts from American soil to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

Boom camera shot of SpaceShipTwo breaking the sound barrier.  Credit: Virgin Galactic
Boom camera shot of SpaceShipTwo breaking the sound barrier. Credit: Virgin Galactic

“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Branson, who watched the flight from the grounds of Mojave.

The entire fight lasted about an hour with SS2 gliding back for a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port to conclude the history making flight.

Until today’s engine firing, the SS2/WK2 aerial test flight program had been limited to captive carry and landing drop tests.

Branson’s near term goal is for SpaceShipTwo to fly to space – commonly defined as 62 miles (100 km) altitude – for the first time before year’s end, validate the vehicle with a rigorous test flight program of gradually expanding the flight envelope to insure full operability and safety and then carry the first revenue paying passengers to space thereafter from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

Rumors that this rocket firing test flight was imminent had reached a fever pitch over the past few days, stoked by broad hints in open messages from Branson himself. So, a large group of Virgin employees and space enthusiasts were present today to witness the momentous event (see photos).

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee’s of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

In the not too distant future, the purpose of SS2 is for everyday folks – not just highly trained astronauts – to experience spaceflight and out of this world views of the Earth below and the heavens above.

Eventually, human spaceflight could be as commonplace as flying aboard a commercial jetliner is today.

SpaceShipTwo can carry 8 people total; including a crew of two pilots and six passengers on suborbital missions to space.

Although SS2 cannot go into Earth orbit, Branson hopes that future varients will achieve orbit.

Branson himself will fly aboard the first commercial SS2 flight. Over 500 people have already plucked down over $200,000 to reserve the unprecedented choice seats.

“Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get on board this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space and am delighted that today’s milestone brings that day much closer,” said Branson.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation quickly lauded the Virgin Galactic team and issued this statement:

“The Commercial Spaceflight Federation congratulates the team at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for the first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo today,” said CSF President Michael Lopez-Alegria.

“This incredible achievement is the direct result of the hard work and dedication by these two companies, as well as by RocketMotorTwo developer Sierra Nevada Corporation. Because of their efforts, we are one step closer to achieving safe, routine, and cost-effective access to space that will create abundant opportunities for space-based research and that will inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. I applaud the team at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for their accomplishment, and the team at Mojave Air & Space Port for their efforts in creating a professional and safe testing environment.”

In this era of stingy federal funding and slashes to NASA’s budget, commercial spaceflight will play a major and increasing role in bringing down the high costs of access to space as well as enabling an expanding science exploration program and private commercial space exploitation programs to open up the High Frontier.

Other private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are already leading the charge with regards to the commercial space exploration race with their Falcon 9 and Antares commercial rockets – now launching crucial cargo for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) since the retirement of the Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011.

Ken Kremer

Virgin Galactic Taps Test Flight Veteran As Pilot

Virgin Galactic has tapped U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer as a pilot for the private space company. Photo Credit: Clay Center Observatory/Virgin Galactic

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From a pool of 500 potential applicants, Virgin Galactic has found their man. The NewSpace firm chose from some of the greatest pilots the world has to offer to work to be a pilot for their company. U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer rose to the top of the list and was selected by Virgin Galactic to join the team that is working to allow private citizens a flight into space.

Virgin Galactic announced Colmer’s addition to the company’s space flight team on Oct. 26. He will join Virgin Galactic’s Pilot David Mackay as they work to get the company’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and its spacecraft SpaceShipTwo into service. They will be joined by more pilots as the company works to begin operations in 2013.

Colmer brings 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience plus more than 10 years of combined military experience in USAF spacecraft operations and flying. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

“Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots,” said Virgin Galactic’s President and CEO George Whitesides. “But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come.”

“This team in Mojave is second to none,” said Mackay about Scaled Composite’s test pilots. “Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all.”

Colmer is a veteran pilot, with 12 years worth of experience in testing experimental aircraft. He has over 5,000 hours logged in more than 90 different types of aircraft.

Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch private citizens into space, potentially as early as 2013. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Former NASA Space Shuttle Manager Mike Moses recently left NASA to work as Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Operations. Virgin Galactic is working to begin powered test flights, and after that the company will try to begin commercial operations.

“I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team,” said Colmer. “Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”

Colmer has served as a combat pilot, flying an F-16 in two tours in Iraq with the Colorado Air National Guard. According to information provided in a Virgin Galactic press release he is the first Air National Guard pilot to ever be selected to attend the USAF Test Pilot School, at Edwards Air Force Base.

With the dedication of its spaceport located near Las Cruces, New Mexico; additions to its team such as former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses and others, Virgin Galactic is working to have the needed infrastructure in place to begin flight operations within the next two years. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Jeffrey Vock

Colmer has a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters degree in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a graduate of the USAF Undergraduate Space Training program, the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program and USAF Test Pilot School, Class 02A.

Virgin Galactic recently dedicated its Space Port in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The company is part of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by Sir Richard Branson. The company formed after Scaled Composites one the $10 million Ansari X-PRIZE back in 2004. The flights of WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne paved the way for the development of the vehicles that Virgin Galactic is planning on utilizing to begin suborbital space flight operations. Tickets for flights on the commercial space plane are set to cost approximately $200,000.

NASA Strengthens Virgin Galactic Ties With New Contract

NASA has entered an arrangement with commercial space firm Virgin Galactic to fly experiments on board the company's SpaceShipTwo. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenburg

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NASA has, on a number of occasions tapped the NewSpace firm Virgin Galactic to help the space agency accomplish its objectives – recently, it has done so again. This new contract will see NASA science payloads take suborbital flights on the company’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spacecraft. This however is not the first time that NASA has entered into an arrangement with the emerging commercial space flight firm.

NASA first began working with Virgin Galactic in 2007, when it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to explore possible collaborative efforts to develop various equipment required to conduct space flight operations (space suits, heat shields, and other space flight elements).

Under this arrangement NASA will have one scientific mission flown aboard SpaceShipTwo with options for two additional flights. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Earlier this year, NASA selected seven different firms that either had or were developing suborbital spacecraft – one of these was Virgin Galactic. The announcement that was made Thursday, Oct. 13 is actually the culmination of the Flight Opportunities Program, which was announced on Aug. 9 of this year and established to help NASA meet its technology and research development requirements.

The agreement to fly NASA payloads on SS2 was announced about a week after former NASA Shuttle Program Manager; Mike Moses stated he was leaving the space agency to work as Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations. Moses will be in charge of all operations at Spaceport America, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

On these missions, not only will a carry a scientific payload but an engineer that will monitor the payload and operate the payload. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

“I’ve known Mike for a long time, from his flight controller days which led to him becoming a flight director and then moving into the shuttle program,” said Kyle Herring, a NASA public affairs officer. “I think he would be a very valuable asset to any organization that he went to. Mike’s expertise will be very beneficial in not just mission operations but ground operations as well.”

The NASA contract with Virgin Galactic is for one flight with the space agency optioning two additional flights (for a potential of three flights total). If NASA options all three flights, the total contract would be worth an estimated $4.5 million. The announcement came just four days prior to the dedication ceremony for the spaceport’s new headquarters (the dedication was on Monday, Oct. 17).

NASA will flight at least one experiment package on SpaceShipTwo, with an option to fly potentially two more. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Each of these suborbital missions will have a trained engineer on board to handle the experiments.

Virgin Galactic is an arm of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic is working to provide tourists with suborbital flights into space that will allow these space passengers to briefly experience the micro-gravity environment. The flights will launch from a spaceport which is currently under construction near Las Cruces New Mexico. Tickets have been priced at about $200,000 each.

Former Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses has joined Virgin Galactic as the company's vice president of operations. The company conducted a dedication ceremony of its new spaceport, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico on Monday, Oct. 17. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg