Virgin Galactic Spacecraft Glides to Safety

The company's VSS Enterprise spacecraft, designed for space tourists, completes a critical mission.

Virgin Galactic, the U.S. company developing the world's first commercial manned space flight system and tourism business, announced the successful completion today of the first piloted free flight of SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Enterprise. The spaceship was released from its mothership at an altitude of 45,000 feet, according to company information, and glided to land at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California on Sunday.

During its first flight, Pete Siebold, assisted by Mike Alsbury as co-pilot, piloted the spaceship. According to Virgin, 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.

Other objectives of the flight were also completed, including verification that all systems worked prior to and following the clean release of the 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, and practice of a landing approach at altitude and finally descend and land.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, was present during the first successful flight. "This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin. 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," he said. "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."

Preparations for the milestone flight were extensive. The WhiteKnightTwo mothership (Eve) flew 40 times, including four captive carry flights of spaceship and mothership mated together. The most recent captive carry was on Sept. 30. The most recent solo flight was on Oct. 5 and demonstrated that all the systems required for a free flight by the VSS Enterprise were functioning correctly without any safety issues.

"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," Siebold said.

Virgin Galactic said it is now well on the way to becoming the world's first commercial space line, with 370 customer deposits totaling $50 million. Future commercial operations will be at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where final preparations are taking place for a finished runway inauguration ceremony on Oct 22. 2010, according to a company release.

"To see the world's first manned commercial spaceship landing on a runway is a sight I always dreamed I would behold," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, who was also present at the flight. "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, N.M."