SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship owned by Virgin Galactic, completed a key flight test on Wednesday, gliding over the Californian Mojave Desert with its engine, fuel tank and thermal shielding on its wings for the first time.
“We’re taking this incremental approach,” Mike Moses, Virgin’s vice president for operations, told Discovery News.
“The flight test program is going to take a while because the very first flight isn’t trying to go all the way up to the edge of space and just hang out there for 15 minutes and then come back down again. We’re going to slowly go up and up, we’ll see what we learn as we go, see how the vehicle responds to it as we go,” he said.
An example of what the company wants to learn as it builds up flight experience is how the spaceship’s rocket plume impacts the vehicle as it flies through the upper atmosphere.
“We know the plume of the rocket motor is going to expand pretty good. We see it all the time because you design the nozzle for a lower pressure. So how does that interact with our vehicle? Do we have flow recirculation, and do we get hotspots on the vehicle’s tail?
“We have some predictions that show we might have a few areas that get warm, so we can go slap a whole bunch of thermal protection on and make the vehicle nice and heavy right now, or we can instrument it and go fly because the very first flight is not going to go that high and we’ll see how warm it gets, and we’ll go a littler warmer and a litter warmer and we’ll see how we go,” said Moses, a former NASA space shuttle program manager.
If all goes as planned, the company expects to begin powered test flights in early Spring 2013, Moses said.
Virgin Galactic, which is pre-selling rides on SpaceShipTwo for $200,000, has signed up about 560 clients for the suborbital rides, which will be similar to those flown by manufacturer Scaled Composites‘ prototype, SpaceShipOne.
That vehicle, which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space museum, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October 2004 for the first private human spaceflights.