Virgin Galactic achieves re-entry milestone as private space race hots up


Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo for the first time flew in its re-entry ‘feathered’ configuration yesterday, marking a crucial milestone ahead of commercial flights around 2012.

The feathered configuration involves rotating SpaceShipTwo’s tail section 65 degrees relative to the fuselage in order to create drag and slow the ship down as it re-enters the atmosphere from space. On a tourist flight to space, the craft will rotate its tail at roughly 70 000 feet before it glides down to a runway.

Yesterday the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft VMS Eve took off from a runway in California with SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Enterprise, slung underneath. After 45 minutes the aircraft reached 51 500 feet, at which point the Enterprise was released. It glided before the tail was feathered and the craft stayed in this configuration for over a minute whilst it descended. Finally, the ship reverted to normal glide mode and came to land safely on a runway.
“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,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer and President George Whitesides said in a statement yesterday. “We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly.”

Virgin Galactic was founded by Sir Richard Branson with the aim of offering private trips into suborbital space. A ticket aboard SpaceShipTwo costs roughly US$200 000. SpaceShipTwo is an outgrowth of SpaceShipOne, which won the US$10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable private spacecraft in 2004. It was designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Rutan is tasked with developing the suborbital vehicle as well as its WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

SpaceShipTwo has space for six passengers and two pilots. The VSS Enterprise and will conduct rocket-powered testing later this year. Virgin Galactic expects the first passenger flights to take off by 2012.

In preparation for commercial flights, Virgin Galactic recently unveiled its Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico.

In late February Virgin Galactic announced it had signed a contract with the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) for two tickets to space and has six more seats reserved for the institute. The deal, worth US$1.6 million, is the first agreement Virgin Galactic has signed with scientists – up until now, all the company’s roughly 400 deposits have been from space tourists who want to fly on the SpaceShipTwo craft.

SpaceShipTwo will fly over 100 kilometres above Earth, allowing scientists to conduct microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy research. In addition to SwRI carrying out its own experiments, it will also fly experiments and personnel from other American research institutes.

At the same time, SwRI has also partnered with the California-based XCOR Aerospace to take scientists and their experiments on six flights aboard the Lynx suborbital spaceplane. SwRI has options to buy three more tickets. The contracts mark a first for the reusable suborbital launch industry. The Lynx vehicle is a two-seat craft that will take off and land on a runway. It will be able to fly to a height of around 60 kilometres. Flight testing should begin sometime next year.

South African company Orbital Horizon signed a deal with XCOR Aerospace in December last year to become the first African space tourism agent, selling tickets for an ‘affordable’ R626 000 instead of the nearly R2 million for SpaceShipTwo.

However, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and XCOR are not alone as there are more than half a dozen other companies working on commercial space flight, including Orbital Sciences, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Alliant Techsystems and Excalibur Almaz, AFP reports. In addition, in September last year Boeing announced it was partnering with Space Adventures to sell commercial space flights aboard its seven-seat CST-100 spacecraft, which should be operational by 2015.

NASA is also exploring the possibilities of private spaceflight and is counting on four companies to return the United States to space after the shuttle is retired later this year. Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Blue Origin -will share US$269.3 million in NASA funds this year to work on spaceships and supporting technologies needed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

If successful, the first vehicles could be ready for flight in about three years, though that presumes additional government investment in 2012 and 2013.

The alternative, however, is for the United States to continue to pay Russia for spaceflight services, which cost US$51 million per person now and will increase to US$63 million a seat in 2014.

Under the new commercial crew initiative, partner companies will be paid fixed amounts when they achieve set milestones, and they will contribute some of their own funds toward development costs. Traditionally, NASA paid its contractors’ costs, plus bonus fees.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded and led by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the most advanced of the four, having flown its Falcon 9 rocket twice and a cargo version of its Dragon capsule once.

With its new US$75 million investment from NASA, privately owned SpaceX plans to develop an emergency launch escape system and outfit Dragon to carry up to seven passengers.

Boeing, which was awarded US$92.3 million, is developing a similar seven-person capsule and plans to announce the capsule’s launch vehicle soon.

With its US$80 million in NASA funding, privately held Sierra Nevada Corp. wants to finalize the design of its seven-seater winged craft called Dream Chaser.

And Blue Origin, founded by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, will use US$22 million in NASA funds for technical studies and tests leading to a design of a seven-person capsule and reusable liquid-fuelled boosters.
“We as a nation allowed this gap (in human spaceflight) to occur so now we have to live with it,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. “We as a nation can shorten the gap if we continue to fund commercial programs, if I continue to do my utmost to facilitate their success, so that within the next three or four years — instead of the next five or six years — we have a domestic capability to put humans into orbit.”