Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SpaceShipTwo Takes Off

In as little as two years, private space flight may be a reality—and NASA won’t be

PRIVATE SPACE FLIGHT. Suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic to the edge of space will soon be a reality.
I don’t know about you, but for me, flying in space has always been the ultimate goal. Like so many other kids who grew up dreaming of a place in the sky, I fantasized about someday aviating outside the atmosphere.

Sadly, it appears that’s never going to happen, at least not for me. The American space program that was so aggressive in the 1960s slowed to a crawl after the seven Moon missions, and any chance I might have had to see space has evaporated. Senator John Glenn may have been able to wangle a shuttle seat in 1998 at age 77, but it’s highly unlikely I could pull off the same trick at 70. I applied for the Journalist in Space program in the early ’80s, but that was cancelled when teacher Christa McAuliffe was lost on Challenger in 1986.

Regular readers of these pages may recall that I was finally allowed to fly the space shuttle simulator a few months ago, the realization of a 20-year goal. I flew the only motion-based shuttle simulator in existence, a roughly $80-million machine, in June of last year, and reported on the experience in the November 2010 issue of Plane & Pilot.

With the current administration now essentially abandoning any plans to explore outside the atmosphere for at least another 10 years and likely putting some of NASA’s employees on the street, the conquest of space is being left to the Russians and the private sector. An agency that required 50 years to build is being quietly phased out.

Efforts by commercial space companies are being led by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

The current plan is for Virgin Galactic to offer suborbital flights to 100 kilometers, the so-called “Kármán line” that signifies the threshold of space. Rutan has developed a two-component spacecraft. The eight-seat SpaceShipTwo remains coupled to the mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, to 50,000 feet, drops free, fires its own rockets and climbs to 100 kilometers, about 328,000 feet.

At FL3280, SpaceShipTwo presents its passengers with about six minutes of weightlessness, then, like the space shuttle, glides unpowered back to a landing, in this case, at Spaceport America, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M. The total flight will last about 3.5 hours. If flight testing goes well, the consortium hopes to make the first revenue flight in late 2012. Oh yeah, the current price per passenger is $200,000.


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