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

In a sense, SpaceShipTwo’s flight starts at 50,000 feet, so the trip to 62 miles altitude is easier and consumes far less fuel than if launched from the ground. The aircraft is based on the previous Rutan SpaceShipOne that won the $10 million Ansari prize in 2004 for the first commercial flight to space.

In theory, the Rutan spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor, burning solid rocket propellant with nitrous oxide, is capable of flying at Mach 3.0, but not for long. The aircraft will have one mission and that’s to climb, baby, climb.

For reentry, Burt Rutan again went his own way. He designed his spacecraft with provisions for folding the lifting surfaces back and up 65 degrees, what he calls his tail-feathering system. The concept is similar to that of a shuttlecock that remains stable and bottom down in flight.

For reentry, the pilot simply feathers the tail to the 65-degree up position, and that configuration allows stable, automatic, near hands-off control of attitude with the fuselage maintained parallel to the horizon. The extreme low weight of the carbon-composite spacecraft and the high drag keep reentry speed minimal and skin temperatures so low that heat shielding isn’t necessary.

When the spacecraft reaches about 70,000 feet, the crew deploys the tail to its original configuration, and the aircraft becomes a conventional glider again.

Currently, the number of possible launch and recovery sites is limited to a half-dozen locations around the world. The New Mexico Spaceport America and the Mojave Spaceport are the two current U.S. civilian space-operating centers. A Scandinavian space center is proposed at Spaceport Sweden, and Spaceport U.K. is planned for RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

Such a flight will be a dream come true for the very rich, and it will be the ultimate gift for the pilot who has everything from his or her significant other. That significant other had better have a very high limit on their American Express card.


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