Monday, April 29, 2013

SpaceshipTwo Flies Supersonic

          by Brian Orlotti

Eight and a half years after SpaceshipOne’s epochal 2004 Ansari X Prize-winning flight, its successor SpaceshipTwo (SS2) has completed its first powered test flight.

The test, conducted by staff from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, marks the start of the final phase of testing before the beginning of commercial suborbital service from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The test began at 7:02am PST when SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California mated to WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), its carrier aircraft. Piloting SS2 were Mark Stucky (pilot) and Mike Alsbury (co-pilot), test pilots for Scaled Composites, the firm founded by Burt Rutan that built SS2 for Virgin Galactic. Piloting WK2 was Virgin Galactic's Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, assisted by Clint Nichols (co-pilot) and Brian Maisler (flight test engineer) for Scaled Composites.

Sir Richard Branson (centre) surrounded by media and flanked by Burt Rutan at Mojave after the flight. Photo c/o W. Christine Choi.
After climbing to an altitude of 47,000 feet (14.3 kilometres), at roughly the 45 minute mark, SS2 was released from WK2. The pilots triggered ignition of the rocket motor, and SS2 was propelled up towards a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet (16.7 kilometres). During the 16-second engine burn, SS2 went supersonic, achieving Mach 1.2. The entire test lasted just over 10 minutes, ending in a smooth landing at approximately 8am PST.

After touchdown, public statements were made by the heads of SpaceshipTwo’s two main financial backers; Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic and His Excellency Khadem Al Qubaisi, Chairman of Aabar Investments PJC in Abu Dhabi.

"The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date," said Branson, who was onsite at Mojave to witness the flight. "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."

Khadem Al Qubaisi.
"We partnered with Virgin Galactic several years ago with the aspiration to transform and commercialize access to space for the broader public," said Khadem Al Qubaisi. "Today's test is another key milestone in realizing that aspiration. Our partnership goes from strength to strength, and is an excellent example of aabar's desire to participate in the development of world class technologies that are commercially viable and strategically important, both for the company, its shareholders, and for Abu Dhabi."

Virgin Galactic President & CEO (and former National Space Society director) George Whitesides also made a statement, "The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout," Whitesides said, adding that, "The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space."

SS2 pilot Mark Stucky being congratulated by Branson and Virgin Galactic President/ CEO George Whitesides (right). Photo c/o Mark Greenberg.
Over the next few months, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites will conduct further flights. These next tests will steadily expand the spaceship's flight parameters, culminating in a full space flight anticipated before year’s end.

In 2004, just after SpaceshipOne’s flight, Richard Branson promised the public commercial suborbital flights within three or four years. It ended up taking far longer, but Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites’ patience and persistence are finally bearing fruit.

SpaceshipTwo’s successful test flight has been a welcome milestone in a process that has at times been marked by frustration, tragedy, and controversy.

On July 26, 2007, three Scaled Composites employees working onsite at the Mojave Air & Space Port were killed in an explosion during tests involving nitrous oxide (aka ‘laughing gas’) rocket propellant. A 2008 report issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) failed to find a specific cause, concluding that the company had failed to provide its employees with proper training in the handling of nitrous oxide. Cal-OSHA fined Scaled Composites for five safety violations but took no further action, leading to allegations of influence-peddling by some space pundits.

Despite the missteps along the way, today’s successful flight has put suborbital tourism back into the public consciousness. SpaceshipTwo’s success, though seen as a late promise by some, still holds the promise of better things to come.

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