On April 29, 2013, Virgin Galactic took a huge step toward suborbital spaceflight -- the six-person SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket engine for the first time in flight, accelerating it to supersonic speeds. Richard Branson called the test "critical." Seen here, WhiteKnightTwo -- SpaceShipTwo's mothership -- taxis along the airstrip at California's Mojave Air ans Space Port shortly before takeoff at 7 a.m. PST.
At an altitude of 46,000 ft, WhiteKnightTwo released the spaceship -- manned by a three-person test crew including Virgin Galactic's lead pilot David Mackay.
Shortly after release, the spaceship's rocket engine lit up, accelerating the vehicle faster than sound.
The rocket engine fired for 16 seconds during the landmark flight test. "It looked stunning," Richard Branson told Discovery News shortly after the test.
A telescopic view from the ground highlights the bright exhaust from the SpaceShipTwo's single RocketMotorTwo.
A tail-mounted camera captures an intimate look at the RocketMotorTwo's nozzle -- signatures of the ground crew can be seen on the nozzle.
Richard Branson celebrates the successful flight test with 'Forger' a.k.a. Mark Stucky.
Burt Rutan congratulates Branson after the successful supersonic test flight.
In an interview earlier this week, Virgin boss Richard Branson hinted that he has “another idea” for cheaper space travel.
“The next ten years will be quite expensive (for space tourism) … that will enable us to bring the price down quite considerably over the years to come,” said Branson while being interviewed by Business Insider in New York promoting the B-Team, a non-profit ethical business initiative.
“We do have another idea, which we’re going to announce in about four months time, which will enable people to travel into space very cheaply — not everybody, but quite a few people who never expected to go into space, but we’re going to unveil that in about four months time.”
When pushed for more details on his plan, Branson laughed and said, “I always say too much. I’ve already said too much. Thank you though!”
On Wednesday, the space tourism company gathered around 300 fee-paying customers in the Mojave Desert, Calif., to watch a demonstration flight of the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital spaceplane. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and the flight was canceled. Currently, the company has over 600 paid customers awaiting commencement of suborbital service.
Each Virgin Galactic customer is paying $250,000 for the joyrides on board the SS2. The spaceplane is scheduled for its first commercial flight in early 2014.
Currently, getting into space is expensive so the burgeoning commercial space market is trying to drive down costs. But as Branson is all too aware, the space tourism market is way out of the price range for most of us.
Virgin Galactic’s premium seats for a 65 mile-high joyride are currently in the domain of the rich and famous — could future tickets into space ever become accessible to the general public? Not for some time, it seems; in April, the cost of rides on the SS2 saw a 25 percent increase.
“… we’re going to put the price up to $250,000 until the first 1,000 people have traveled, so that it matches up with inflation since we started,” Branson told SPACE.com just after the SS2 had successfully carried out its first powered supersonic flight.
Although the founder of Virgin Galactic acted coy about these new plans for “cheap” space travel, the entrepreneur rarely leaves things to chance. So could this interview “slip” be a PR ploy to get us hungry for the next big (presumably Virgin Galactic-based) announcement? Well, we’ll probably have to wait until early 2014 to find out.
Image credit: Virgin Galactic