Another Small Step Toward Private Spaceflight: SpaceShipTwo Test Flight

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
April 30 2013 12:00 PM

Virgin Galactic Successfully Tests SpaceShipTwo in Powered Flight

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight
The first powered test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo was a success.

Photo by MarsScientific.com and Clay Center Observatory

Humanity took another small step forward yesterday: Virgin Galactic performed a successful powered test flight of its space plane, SpaceShipTwo (or SS2).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

The rocketplane was lofted to a height of 14,600 meters (48,000 feet) by its mothership (White Knight Two), released, and then the rocket motor kicked in. The rocketplane then went to an altitude of about 17,000 meters (56,000 feet), breaking the speed of sound to achieve a velocity of Mach 1.22. The flight lasted 13 minutes, with SS2 gliding back to the spaceport in New Mexico from where it was launched.

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This was a critical test, the first powered flight using the rocket motor, and it apparently went quite well.

Virgin Galactic test flight of SS2
View taken from a camera mounted on a boom showing SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight.

Photo by Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic plans on taking paying customers to space using SS2 (and four other rocketplanes based on it built by the same company, Scaled Composites). Like this test flight, they’ll be carried aloft by a plane, released, and then launched into a ballistic parabola, reaching a height of over 100 kilometers—by definition, the boundary of space. The spaceplane will then arc back down, and when it’s low enough it will simply glide back to the spaceport.

Here's a short video with some footage of the flight.

Like what you saw? Wanna take a ride? Tickets are $200,000 each, so there you go. Still, Virgin Galactic has sold a lot of seats, including several to researchers. 100 km is high enough, and three to four minutes of weightlessness long enough, to get some good science done. And it’s a lot cheaper than a standard rocket flight.

I’ve heard some grumbling about this, mostly from people who think it’s just a toy for the rich. I don’t see that. First, as I pointed out, there is good science to be done here. Second, everything starts off expensive! The first passenger airplanes cost a fortune and tickets weren’t cheap. Eventually, as tech gets better and flights more routine, prices drop. Certainly there is a minimum cost to a flight like this, and it’ll be dear, but it will be within reach of a lot of people.

And remember, we’re just starting out here. Eventually, this tech can lead to better rockets, easier access to space, and other benefits we don’t see just yet. That’s usually the case when it comes to space exploration.

There isn’t enough money in the world to strap me into one of those planes—I get sick on a kid’s swing set—but I am 100 percent behind this sort of thing. Let Virgin, let SpaceX, let Orbital, let Sierra Nevada, and let all the others blaze this trail to space. Humans may have evolved on this planet, but that doesn’t mean we have to stick around here forever.

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