11 October 2010

Virgin Galactic Glides to Successful Landing

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Enterprise) successfully glided to a successful touchdown in the Mojave Desert in California. The 11 minute flight started when the twin rocketed spacecraft was released from a WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane at an altitude of 45,000 feet. This was first piloted gliding flight of Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbital spacecraft and marked a major step in establishing commercial manned space flights.

The Scaled Composites (the spacecraft manufacturer) Pilot Pete Siebold glowed about how the spacecraft handled:

The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the world's highest altitude gliders.
The spacecraft was based on a prototype designed by Burt Rutan in 2004 that won a $10 million prize for being the first manned private spacecraft that reached space. Rutan’s aerodynamic design utilizes a unique feathering system that eliminates the need for sophisticated flight control systems and pilot prowess to have a heat free atmospheric re-entry and glide landing.

The rocket powered SpaceShipTwo has been designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to make suborbital flights that will give paying passengers a feeling of weightlessness and a view of the blue planet from above. Since 2005, Virgin Galactic has collected nearly $50 million from 370 prospective passengers willing to pony up $200,000 a piece for a few minutes in space. The commercial flights will eventually take place at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The runaway is expected to be completed on October 22, 2010.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was enthusiastic about the success of the experimental flight, “Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.” Branson expect to have commercial passengers flying the friendly cosmos in the next 18 months. But Virgin Galactic CEO George Whiteside cites the need to complete the experimental program, obtain the FAA license and successfully establish the spaceflight service from Spaceport America, New Mexico.

This saga for commercial spaceflight will be detailed in a four part series that will premiere on the National Geographic Channel on October 18, 2010.

While personally I think that establishing an expensive suborbital joy ride shuttle is aiming low, this may be the most profitable first steps into space for non-governmental space travelers. Considering how the Obama Administration has proposed killing NASA's Constellation program to put a man back on the moon, NASA's apparent expansion in mission to include boosting Muslims' self esteem and the proposed $2 Billion budget cut for NASA, this might be as good as it gets for manned spaceflight in North America for the near future.

No comments: