Tuesday, October 12

Scaled Composites temptation

Regular readers will recall that last December I attended the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s new sub-orbital spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise. The twin-tail vehicle is designed to carry six commercial passengers and two crew in a ballistic trajectory out of the earth’s atmosphere. The astronauts will travel more than three times the speed of sound, soaring to height of 110 kilometres before experiencing four minutes of weightlessness – all for the humble price of US$200,000 per person.

Over the weekend Virgin Galactic’s test flight program achieved another critical milestone. It conducted the first piloted gliding flight of the VSS Enterprise. On Sunday the winged craft was released from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at an altitude of 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. It successfully glided to a flawless touchdown eleven minutes later. The craft was not equipped with a rocket motor for test drop.

The video highlights are spectacular. Scaled Composites, its designer, has created an amazing rocketplane. You can clearly see that the craft generates some impressive aerodynamic lift. Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic’s President, later told me its lift-to-drag ratio has proved better than computer models predicted. We now know it flies as well as it looks. I’m sorely tempted to sign up for a flight now having seen how stable VSS Enterprise is in flight. Of course Garry sensibly reminds me to pay off the mortgage on our Sydney apartment first. Oh the temptation!

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