Finally: Virgin SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity completed her first glide flight! It’s been just over two years since the accident. I wish I could have seen her on her own without the mother ship. Up until Saturday, she was always in captive carry mode. That is she was carried and firmly attached to WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve , her carrier aircraft. On December 3rd, she was released from VMS Eve and glided home on her own for the very first time. Virgin Galactic’s press release said pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky were in the cockpit for the flight. VSS Unity made a smooth landing on the Mojave runway, Richard Branson was able join the team on the flightline to witness and celebrate the milestone. The day is closer when we will celebrate with Virgin Galactic, our first flight from Spaceport America. Dan Hicks, our current spaceport Executive Director deserves to be with us for this occasion as he has a long history in the development of the facility. That is for another article.
You may have been lucky enough to see the Shuttle Endeavour when she flew over Las Cruces atop her carrier air craft a Boeing 747 on the way to the Los Angeles Science Museum in September 2012. It is not new that we use air craft to transport space craft. The carrier aircraft, VMS Eve is an indicator of the reliance on 113 years of flight experience that is part of the DNA of this system, originally designed by Burt Rutan. His reputation as a successful innovator is borne out by the fact that he has not one but five of his vehicles in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. His Voyager and SpaceShipOne are in the same hall with the Wright Brothers Flyer.
You may recall it is Burt Rutan, funded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, who designed and built WhiteKnightOne (WK1), which carried SpaceShipOne to space twice within two weeks. These flights won Rutan the $10million XPrize. The XPrize was designed to stimulate commercial companies to design, build and fly vehicles that could successfully take humans to space. The prize was designed after the Orteig Prize, the $25,000 prize Charles Lindberg won for flying solo over the Atlantic from New York to Paris. The Spirit of St. Louis also hangs in the hall with SpaceShipOne.
The reliability of the design of VMS Eve is a great lesson in aviation history. Many of us fly on the Southwest Airlines work horse, Boeing’s 747. That plane is a single fuselage plane. The dual fuselage air craft has been around since the Second World War. As the war required more powerful aircraft to carry heavier loads longer distances, aircraft designers shortened the development time and combined two fuselages to create transport, bomber and eventually fighter aircraft. Burt Rutan understood the heavy load and maneuverability problems were more easily solved if the space vehicle were placed between the two fuselages.
Early on in the development program for the system that will soon be coming to New Mexico, we understood, the WK1 carrier aircraft did not have the lift capability to take the redesigned, larger SS2, to 50,000 feet. Scaled Composites, the designer and builder of WK1, went to work to accommodate SS1, which was destroyed in the 2014 accident. VSS Unity’s successful first flight on her own is another indicator of how Virgin Galactic’s President Mike Moses is moving ever forward in getting her to space. VSS Unity is designed to carry up to 6 passengers and two pilots. VMS Eve was named after Richard Branson’s mother. VMS Eve has a wing span of 141 feet. This vehicle was here in New Mexico this summer, going through its Flight Test Program. VMS Eve is also the world’s largest all carbon composite aircraft, which provides for a lighter more rugged air craft. Not only will this air craft be used to carry VSS Unity, but it will also be used for training purposes. The Scaled Composites website, the designer and developer of the vehicle indicates it is capable of pre space-flight, positive G force and zero G astronaut training. The vehicle is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines. Government astronauts will be allowed to train on the VMS Eve and VSS Unity. This is an important step in the commercialization of access to space. Not only will NASA be able to use these vehicles, but astronauts from Space X and Boeing may use this system. And, they will likely come to our spaceport to do their training. As NASA White Sands Test Facility is nearby and may be able to support these test programs.
I will keep reporting on test flight milestones. They are a way for all of us to keep our eye on this system that will help with the continued commercial approach for humans to get to space. Once the team has analyzed the data and confirmed the test objectives have been met, they will move towards the next test flight in the glide flight sequence. Virgin Galactic has a well-defined set of objectives, that will cumulatively allow them to test and prove the performance of the vehicle in a variety of conditions, flight path angles and airspeeds. You can go to their website for more information. We have a ways to go yet, and there is nothing like success to keep us motivated.