Virgin Galactic has finished yet another stepping-stone to its first commercial spaceflight. The New Mexico-based company sent SpaceShipTwo aloft on a test of the re-entry system Oct. 7, making a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The company is among a handful of firms competing to bring well-heeled tourists into suborbital space. There are more than 700 people signed up to take a flight on SpaceShipTwo, with tickets running at $250,000 per seat. The spacecraft is put into the air using a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then separates for a brief flight in space. Exact timing for the first flight has not been disclosed yet, but it is expected to be in the coming months.
“SpaceShipTwo is safely back on the ground after her 54th test flight, including her tenth test of the feather system,” wrote Virgin Galactic in a tweet yesterday (Oct. 7). “Coupled with several good, full duration ground tests of SS2’s rocket motor in recent weeks, today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”
It’s been a long road to space for Virgin Galactic, which last week commemorated the 10th anniversary of the predecessor prototype spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) making a second flight into suborbital space Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X-Prize — the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.
The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites and today is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan subsequently designed SpaceShipTwo, but has since retired.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has pushed back the first spaceflight of the new spacecraft several times over the years. In recent statements he has said he was hoping the spacecraft would be ready early next year, but in an NBC news report from last week he simply said SpaceShipTwo is “on the verge” of starting flights.
More pictures from yesterday’s test flight are below.
A mega quartet of luminaries led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan have joined forces to create a revolutionary new approach to space travel. This new privately funded venture entails the development of a mammoth air-launched space transportation system that aims to dramatically cut the high costs and risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.
Allen and Rutan are teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, and Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, to build the world’s largest aircraft ever flown and use it as a platform to loft a multi-stage SpaceX rocket that will deliver a payload of some 13,500 pounds into earth orbit, about the same class as a Delta II.
Allen and Rutan hope to build upon the spaceflight revolution that they pioneered with the suborbital SpaceShipOne in 2004, which was the first privately funded spaceship to reach the edge of space, and now take the critical next step and actually vault all the way to orbit.
Video Caption: Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering innovative solutions to revolutionize space transportation to orbit.
To accomplish this innovative leap, Allen and Rutan, announced the formation of a new company, funded by Allen, called Stratolaunch Systems at a press briefing today, Dec. 13, held in Seattle, WA. Allen is a billionaire and philanthropist who has funded a host of projects to advance science,
“Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding,” Allen lamented at the start of the briefing. “This year saw the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.”
“With government funded spaceflight diminishing, there’s a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts.”
Rutan said that Stratolaunch will build a 1.2 million pound carrier aircraft sporting a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – and which will be powered by six 747 engines on takeoff. The carrier will be a twin fuselage vehicle, like the WhiteKnight developed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne.
The 120 foot long SpaceX rocket, weighing up to 490,000 pounds, will be slung in between and dropped at an altitude of about 30,000 feet for the remaining ascent to orbit.
SpaceX will construct a shorter, less powerful version of the firms existing Falcon 9 rocket, which may be either a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5 depending on specifications.
The new launch system will operate from a large airport or spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, require a 12,000 feet long runway for takeoff and landing and be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Crews aboard the huge carrier aircraft will also conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor payload blasting to orbit.
“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”
The goal of Stratolaunch is to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions,” according to a company statement.
Plans call for a first orbital flight within five years by around 2016. Test flights could begin around 2015.
“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”
Mike Griffin added that the venture is aiming for the small to medium class payload market similar to what has been served by the venerable Delta II rocket, which is now being retired after decades of service.
“At some point this vehicle could loft a crew of say six people,” Griffin stated.
“This is an exciting day,” concluded Allen.
“Stratolaunch will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport.”
Voyager, Proteus and SpaceShipOne have become aerospace legends. As has the man who established them all – Burt Rutan. Zenith Press has released a chronicle of the man and his machines entitled Burt Rutan’s Race to Space: The Magician of Mojave and His Flying Innovations. The book provides a chronicle of all the air and spacecraft that have soared off of Rutan’s blueprints and into reality.
The book’s first main segment is a large section which is essentially a catalog of the numerous craft that Rutan has produced over the decades. Many of the flying machines have their unique characteristics highlighted within the 160 pages of this book. Fear not, this tome is wallpapered with images – most of which are color (175 color images to 55 black and white).
Some of the most interesting of these images are not the glossy stills of air or spacecraft in action but rather the simple drawings that are done by the man himself. These sketches, some little more than cartoons others just simplistic line-drawings, highlight the genius that is Rutan and provide an insight into how his mind works.
The nature of the book changes somewhat when one reaches the chapter entitled, “The Scaled Composites Years.” From this point on, the book’s focus narrows to concentrate on Rutan’s X-PRIZE efforts – and beyond.
The book was written by Dan Linehan and is his second detailing the efforts of Rutan and Scaled Composites (the first was SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History). In short, the freelance writer is steeped in all things Rutan. Whereas his first work on the subject covered the history-making flight of SpaceShipOne, this effort is a general overview of Rutan and his legacy. But be forewarned, there are many projects that span the entire realm of aerospace that Rutan and company have been involved with that might surprise you.
Given that the Mojave “magician” has retired recently – this book is timely, enjoyable and acts as a wonderful window into the mind of the man that has revolutionized flight. SpaceShipTwo continues to successfully complete test after test – making Burt Rutan’s Race to Space a primer for things to come. The book retails for $30, and it is well-worth the price and will be a welcome addition to any space buff’s collection.