Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo could have supersonic test flight Monday

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, says his company is planning to fire up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine for the first time in flight on Monday — a “historic” blast that is expected to send the space plane supersonic.

“We’re hoping to break the sound barrier,” Branson told the Las Vegas Sun. “That’s planned Monday. It will be a historic day. This is going to be Virgin Galactic’s year. We’ll break the sound barrier Monday, and from there, we build up through the rest of the year, finally going into space near the end of the year. I’ll be on the first official flight, which we look to have in the first quarter of next year. We’re doing a number of test flights into space first.”

Cold oxidizer streams from the back of SpaceShipTwo’s engine during an unpowered test flight on April 12. Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, says the rocket plane could go supersonic when its engine is lit up for the first time in flight, as early as Monday. Copyright (c) 2013 All Rights Reserved

Virgin Galactic could initiate the age of suborbital space tourism in 2014

Once Virgin Galactic’s routine flights begin, ordinary people with US $200 000 to spare—will be able to buy tickets into space. True, the company won’t take them into orbit, but it will fly them 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level to the Kármán line, which the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines as the edge of space. 

The Suborbital Experience

The six passengers and two pilots will take off horizontally from the spaceport’s 3.7-kilometer-long runway in a space plane that will likely have the ambiance of a trendy business jet. This craft—dubbed SpaceShipTwo by the company that designed it, Mojave, Calif.–based Scaled Composites—will be slung beneath a double-fuselage carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, on takeoff and for the flight’s first couple of hours.

The real adventure begins after the two linked craft rise about 15 km (50 000 feet), at which point SpaceShipTwo will drop from its mounting, fire up its rocket motor, and go zooming upward into the heavens. Its passengers will then experience peak forces that are almost 4 g’s—four times normal gravity—more than what a ride up on the space shuttle gave its astronauts, although for passengers on SpaceShipTwo the push into their seats will last for just a minute or so. The feeling of acceleration will abruptly disappear when SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor shuts down, as the craft coasts upward through a broad arc that will give its occupants about four minutes of free fall, or “weightlessness.” 

Scaled Composites describes the reentry as “hands‑off” or “care‑free.” But passengers probably won’t feel so carefree when they begin to experience the deceleration—up to 6 g’s worth at peak (although that level lasts only for seconds). 

“Going to 6 g’s is a serious thing, but it’s a very trainable thing,” says George T. Whitesides, president and chief executive officer for Virgin Galactic. “We put 80 of our earliest customers through that exact g profile and the vast majority did fine.” Lynda Turley Garrett, a travel agent based in Saratoga, Calif., and an “accredited space agent” for Virgin Galactic, traveled to the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Penn., where she rode a simulator-equipped centrifuge that duplicated the forces that Virgin’s passengers will be challenged by. Not only did she not black out, she found the experience thrilling. “It was 100 times better than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on,” she says.

More than 500 people have already signed up to get a taste of space with Virgin Galactic.

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