Virgin Galactic achieves key milestone in latest test flight


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British billionaire Richard Branson’s commercial space venture Virgin Galactic on Tuesday got one step closer to carrying tourists into outer space.

For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, deployed its twin tail sections to a “feathered” position, which is designed to allow it to softly return to the Earth’s atmosphere from the vacuum of space.


The one-of-a-kind design is vital to reducing wear and tear on the six-person rocket ship, so it can reach the goal of carrying scores of paying customers into outer space multiple times a day.

The test flight took place shortly after sunrise Tuesday on the desert runway at Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to 51,500 feet by a carrier aircraft and dropped like a bomb.

In its free fall, the test pilot rotated the tail section upward at a 65 degree angle to the center fuselage, creating aerodynamic drag. With the tail in the feathered position, SpaceShipTwo fell to Earth more like a badminton shuttlecock rather than a speeding bullet.

‘This morning’s spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles,’ George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, said in a statement. ‘We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering reentry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly.’

The innovative idea of feathering the tail section was developed by Burt Rutan, the recently retired maverick aerospace engineer, and his Mojave company, Scaled Composites.

Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company said it has taken about 410 reservations for the ride.

Instead of launching a rocket directly into space, a carrier aircraft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.

At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.

The carrier aircraft, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo, which resembles a flying catamaran because of its two fuselages, and SpaceShipTwo are in the midst of a test-flight program that will continue until Virgin Galactic believes it can begin commercial operations.


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-- W.J. Hennigan