Commercial space travel has gotten one small step closer to reality, as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo completed its first manned free flight, closing from an altitude of 45,000 feet down to a successful landing at Virgin’s Mojave Air and Spaceport. The SpaceShipTwo, dubbed the VSS Enterprise, was piloted by Pete Siebold, with Mike Alsbury as co-pilot.
“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on hand for the flight. “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.”
The first free flight of the SpaceShipTwo craft comes after a series of captive carry flights (the first was back in March), in which the VSS Enterprise was carried aloft by the custom-built WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, dubbed Eve. When Virgin Galactic enters operation, the craft will be taken up to a high altitude by a conventional plane then released: at that point, a rocket booster will propel the craft out of the atmosphere. Re-entry is like NASA’s Space Shuttle: a controlled glide to a pre-defined landing point. The free flight confirmed that the VSS Enterprise’s flight systems were all functioning correctly.
“The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly,” said pilot Pete Siebold, “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 worlds highest altitude gliders.” Siebold was also the pilot for SpaceShipOne, the craft that won the Ansari X-Prize. Among other achievements, SpaceShipOne was the first private craft to go over 100km in altitude, and the first private reusable manned spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic has lined up some 370 customer deposits totaling some $50 million for what it will be the world’s first commercial passenger space flight operation.