This article was updated at 6:43 p.m. ET.
A private suborbital spaceship flew its first solo test flight today (Oct. 10) from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Though the craft did not reach space, it was a major milestone for the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, which flew in glide mode for some 15 minutes once released from its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, according Bill Deaver, an eye-witness of the test flight.
"It was perfect landing," Deaver told SPACE.com. "It looked just spectacular."
Once released from the huge mothership, two pilots controlled the SpaceShipTwo to a safe runway touchdown. [Photos of SpaceShipTwo in flight.]
Designed to carry six ticket-holding passengers, the suborbital spaceship is named VSS Enterprise. U.K. billionaire Richard Branson is backing the development of the spaceliner, establishing the Virgin Galactic firm to offer passengers suborbital treks at $200,000 a seat. To date, over 340 people have signed-up for flights to the edge of space.
Progression of testing
There has been a steady progression of testing of the vehicles over the last several months. For example, for the first time on July 15, VSS Enterprise flew with crew on board.
The first WhiteKnightTwo, christened VMS Eve after Richard Branson's mother, was revealed to the public for the first time in July 2008 and started its test flight program later that year.
As planned for that test last July, the spaceship remained attached to its carrier plane -- VMS Eve -- for the duration of the flight, and numerous combined vehicle systems tests were conducted. Also in that flight, the two crew members on board VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spaceship's systems and functions from end to end in the air.
The WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system are under development by Scaled Composites, LLC - an aerospace and specialty composites development company located in Mojave, Calif. (about 80 miles north of Los Angeles).
Founded in 1982 by Burt Rutan, Scaled has broad experience in air vehicle design, tooling and manufacturing, specialty composite structure design, analysis and fabrication, and developmental flight tests of air and space vehicles.
Perhaps the most radical feature employed by SpaceShipTwo is the unique way it returns into the dense atmosphere from the vacuum of space.
Rutan designed the unique feathering system which does away with the need for sophisticated computer driven flight control systems or the need to rely on the pilots. Instead it uses aerodynamic design and the laws of physics for a carefree and heat-free re-entry followed by a glide runway landing.
According to a statement from Virgin Galactic, the spaceship was released from its mothership at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700 meters). From high-altitude drop to landing, the flight of SpaceShipTwo took 11 minutes.
During its first flight the spaceship was piloted by Pete Siebold, assisted by Mike Alsbury as co-pilot.
?The two main goals of the flight were to carry out a clean release of the spaceship from its mothership and for the pilots to free fly and glide back and land at Mojave Air and Space Port in California,? according to the press statement.
Other detailed objectives of the flight were successfully completed, including:
? Verification that all systems worked prior and following the clean release of Enterprise;
? Initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics;
? Qualitative evaluation of stability and control of SS2 against predictions from design and simulation work;
? Verification of performance by evaluating the lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight;
? Practice a landing approach at altitude and finally descend and land.
Real joy to fly
Commenting on the successful flight, Scaled Composites pilot, Pete Siebold, said: ?The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the world?s highest altitude gliders.?
George Whitesides, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic was present at the historic flight. He added: ?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.?
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, was also an on-site eye witness during the first successful solo flight.
?This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,? Branson explained. ?For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world?s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.?
Spaceport runway dedication
Meanwhile, work is ongoing in readying Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport now under construction in New Mexico.
Another major event in the development of personal spaceflight is slated for Oct. 22, when Spaceport America's runway will be dedicated. The event will signal the completion of the nearly two-mile long by two hundred-foot wide spaceport runway from which the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system will operate.
The state-of-the-art launch facility is under construction near Truth or Consequences, N.M., and is expected to become fully operational in 2011.
Officials at Spaceport America have been working closely with leading aerospace firms such as Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Moog-FTS, and UP Aerospace to develop commercial spaceflight at the new facility.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
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