Virgin Galactic Rocket Plane Soars to the Skies on its Maiden Flight

October 11, 2010, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

Virgin Galactic conducted the first gliding flight of its SpaceShipTwo, a.k.a. the VSS Enterprise. This commercial suborbital vehicle was released from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership at an altitude of 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. The futuristic twin-tail spacecraft’s free flight was undertaken with objectives to characterize the release dynamics and to make an initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics.

The piloted, gliding flight, controlled by pilot Pete Siebold and co-pilot Mike Alsbury, aimed at comparing stability and control with predictions from computer models, to evaluate lift and drag, and make a descent to landing. The vehicle is a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space and may be considered the world’s highest altitude glider. Designed by Scaled Composites and aircraft builder Burt Rutan, the rocket plane’s make up evolved from the smaller SpaceShipOne rocket plane that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for becoming the first commercial manned rocket to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers.

The Virgin Galactic rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo could carry six passengers and two pilots into space on suborbital up-and-down flights. It is also capable of providing the astronauts a few moments of weightlessness and a view of Earth, thereby ensuring outer space experience.

Virgin Galactic will also unveil its spaceport in New Mexico in a week. The first commercial flights will happen by the end of next year or the beginning of the following year. Tickets initially will cost some $200,000 per seat. Virgin has already collected $50 million in deposits from 370 customers.

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