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.
About 300 Virgin Galactic customers gathering in Mojave, Calif., on Wednesday to watch a test flight of SpaceShipTwo can chalk up their first real astronaut experience — the flight was scrubbed.
“We really wanted to do a special spaceship flight for you today,” said Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides. ”We gave it our all, but in the end weather just didn’t cooperate.”
“The decision that we made today symbolic of our general attitude, which is that … we will work our guts out for you, but if there’s anything that gives us concern about safety we’re not going fly.”
“This is a vehicle that we are all going to fly on and when we do, we’re going to do it right,” Whitesides said.
SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot air-launched suborbital vehicle, so far has made several glide flight and two test flights of its rocket engine.
Several significant milestones remain before SpaceShipTwo will be ready for commercial flight services. Those include reaching maximum heating of the spaceship during atmospheric re-entry, a supersonic re-entry and maximum aerodynamic pressure, all of which require longer rocket burns and higher altitude than what has been achieved so far during the test flights.
Virgin Galactic’s customers and their guests did get a behind-the-scenes tour of the company’s Mojave facilities, including the factory where additional spaceships are being manufactured.
Several customers also planned to fly on Zero Gravity Corp.’s airplane this week to get a taste of weightlessness. That feat of physics is accomplished by the plane flying parabolas, which cause people and objects aboard to float as the plane nose-dives toward the ground.
“We have this wonderful astronaut club, where we go to Necker Island, we go to South Africa together and this has been going on for a number of years and all of those people are part of that club and quite a lot of them participate,” Virgin founder Richard Branson told Discovery News.
“Actually, I think they would almost rather that the program was delayed because they enjoy the buildup. The foreplay sometimes can be just as exciting as the climax,” he said.
So far, about 630 people have put down deposits or paid for a ride on SpaceShipTwo. The company recently raised its price from $200,000 to $250,000 per person.
Photo: Virgin Galactic