Antares explodes following a loss of thrust – Photo: NASA
The last week of October, 2014 was not a good one for commercial space flight. The week started with Orbital Sciences (OSC) attempting to launch their Antares rocket, carrying their unmanned Cygnus cargo vessel to the International Space Station. After a cancelled launch on Monday for a boat in the safety zone, the second attempt on Tuesday ended in failure.
Seven seconds after liftoff, a catastrophic failure in one or both of the engines caused the rocket to lose all thrust and fall back onto the launch pad, with a large explosion. OSC had launched the Antares four times previously with success, three of those times carrying a Cygnus craft. The company has been a major player in the spaceflight industry for over 30 years, having proven themselves with their unique Pegasus rocket, and a wide range of commercial satellites that they produce for various customers.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo togther – Photo: Virgin Galactic
With the failure of the Antares still fresh in everyone’s mind, on the following Friday, Virgin Galactic prepared for a test flight of their private space passenger vehicle, SpaceShipTwo. Shortly after 10:00AM PST, Virgin sent out a cryptic tweet: “#SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly.” That anomaly turned out to be a worst-case scenario, with the craft breaking up 55,000 ft above the Mojave Desert for still-unkown reasons. With one pilot in serious condition, the other was not as lucky. Mark Alsbury was the latest test pilot to pay the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of pushing aviation to the limits. Over the past 70 years, hundreds of brave pilots gave their all for the same purpose, and it has not been in vain.
Spaceship 2 under Rocket Power as seen through the Telescope at the Clay Center Observatory – Photo: MarsScientific.com and Clay Center Observatory
At approximately 7:47am MDT on the 29th April, the future of space tourism became one step closer to reality. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two (SS2) fired its rocket motor and after a 16 second burn completed a successful test flight.
During the brief time that SpaceShip 2 (christened VSS Enterprise) was in the air, it achieved an altitude of 55,000ft and a speed of Mach 1.2. After a total flight time of just over 10 minutes it touched down safely in Mojave.
Sir Richard Branson & ‘Forger’ aka Mark Stucky congratulate each other after the completion of SS2’s first rocket-powered flight – Photo: Mark Greenberg
“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight.”
WhiteKnightTwo, christened VMS Eve after Richard Branson’s mother Eve, and SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Enterprise, take to the skies during a test flight in Mojave, CA, USA. Photo: Mark Greenberg
SpaceShip 2 was carried to its launching altitude by White Knight 2 (WK2) (named VMS Eve after Sir Richard Branson’s mother). Once at 47,000ft Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, who was piloting WK2 at the time, released SS2 into free flight. Once verifying checks were completed, Mark Stucky, the test pilot, triggered the rocket motor ignition system and propelling the spacecraft on-wards & upwards.
“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” said Virgin Galactic President & CEO George Whitesides. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”
A shot of Space Ship 2 igniting its rocket motor as seen from the Boom Camera – Photo: Virgin Galactic
As the test program expands and begins it’s final phase Virgin Galactic and the manufacturer Scaled Composites, hope to see the first powered spaceflight by the end of this year. When that day is reached, it will mean the end of the test program and the beginning of entry to commercial service. I wonder how many miles it would take to cover the $200,000 ticket cost.
|This story written by…Malcolm Muir, Lead Correspondent. |
Mal is an Australian Avgeek now living and working in Seattle. With a passion for aircraft photography, traveling and the fun that combining the two can bring. Insights into the aviation world with a bit of a perspective thanks to working in the travel industry.
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