SpaceShipTwo's Tourist Joyrides Could Launch Next Year
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo makes its first solo test flight Oct. 10, 2010.
Credit: Mark Greenberg

After making its first solo glide flight Sunday (Oct. 10), the private suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipTwo could achieve another major milestone — a powered test flight involving the firing of its rocket motor — in the next few months.

Officials at Virgin Galactic, which plans to use its SpaceShipTwo spaceliner to ferry tourists on suborbital joyrides, have said a powered test flight could come by the end of this year, and paying passengers could be flying to the edge of space by late 2011 or early 2012. [Photos: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Flight]

"We at Scaled look forward to an aggressive flight test schedule," said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipTwo. "The fun started on 10/10/10 and will continue as we reach our goal of passing onto our customer[s] a spaceship capable to provide the space experience to thousands of adventurers."

The company has been reluctant to set a hard timeline for upcoming tests, emphasizing the provisional, flexible nature of the process. But whatever the specifics, Virgin Galactic is making steady progress in its testing regime, officials said.

"Now, our challenge going forward will be to complete our experimental program, obtain our FAA license and safely bring the system into service at Spaceport America, New Mexico," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement after Oct. 10's glide-flight test.

Space tourism at $200,000 a pop

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry eight people (six passengers and two pilots) on suborbital flights that would reach outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

The spacecraft will drop from a mother ship, called WhiteKnightTwo, from an altitude above 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) and fire a hybrid rocket motor to launch into suborbital space. This motor will use a solid rubber compound for fuel, which will be oxidized by liquid nitrous oxide.

At $200,000 a ticket, paying passengers on SpaceShipTwo will experience weightlessness and glimpse the darkness of space and the view of Earth below. Virgin Galactic says 370 people have already reserved a seat, with paid deposits totaling $50 million.

Virgin Galactic has conducted extensive flight testing already. WhiteKnightTwo has flown 40 separate times, carrying SpaceShipTwo on four of those flights, officials said.

But Sunday's test was the first time SpaceShipTwo detached from its carrier plane and guided itself down to Earth, as it would do with passengers onboard. [Video: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Glide Test.]

"The spaceship flew like a bird, and the crew got out with big smiles on their face," said Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, shortly after SpaceShipTwo touched down at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. "So I'm absolutely delighted."

"[Pilot Pete Siebold] was able to just kiss the ground," Rutan said. "When you do that, and you've never flown the airplane before, never landed it, what that tells you is you've got a phenomenally nice flying machine."

Building up the launch site

When carrying paying customers, the mother ship and SpaceShipTwo will launch from a site near Truth or Consequences, N.M., called Spaceport America.

The facility, the world's first commercial spaceport, is under construction, and it's nearing an important milestone of its own — the Oct. 22 dedication of its two-mile-long runway.

Spaceport America could serve many private aerospace firms in addition to Virgin Galactic. Companies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Moog-FTS and UP Aerospace, which are each developing their own spacecraft, have been working with Spaceport America officials to develop the facility.

Spaceport America is expected to be fully operational sometime in 2011, officials have said.