Today is another red-letter day for the commercial spaceflight industry as the VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic‘s orbital space tourist flagship, makes its debut atmospheric test flight. Constructed by US-based aerospace firm Scaled Composites, Enterprise is the first of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo-class of suborbital spacecraft, an upscaled version of the SpaceShipOne spacecraft that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Like the earlier craft, Enterprise is designed to be carried up to altitude by the Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve. Enterprise then separates from the mothership, and a hybrid rocket motor activates to propel it (and all aboard) to the edge of space.
Carried by VMS Eve today, the craft was put through its initial aerodynamic flight paces in preparation for powered flights and test suborbital flights later this year.
For a cool $200,000 per seat, anyone can book a flight on the six-passenger VSS Enterprise (or, later, the second SpaceShipTwo-class ship under construction, VSS-Voyager,) and experience weightless, see the curvature of Earth and the true blackness of space, and earn their official astronaut wings by crossing the 62-mile elevation boundary from the atmosphere to outer space.
This is a powerful image to me, because it directly conjures images of the first flight of another flagship Enterprise: the OV-101 Enterprise.
Before launching the then-brand-new Space Shuttle to orbit, flight tests were performed in 1977 on a piloted atmospheric test version of the shuttle, which was also named Enterprise after the flagship of Star Trek fame. Though OV-101 Enterprise never flew to space, it was nonetheless the first of its kind and performed essential flight testing prior to the launch of OV-102 Columbia in 1981.
Well, history certainly seems to move in cycles, and thirty years later, thanks to the hard work of Scaled Composites and the buisness savvy of Virgin Galactic, the next generation Enterprise has taken flight. With it fly the hopes of private space tourism, and eventually, private space exploration.
Ad Astra, Enterprise.