Virgin Galactic hints at Orbital Domination

2 11 2010

Virgin Galactic astronaut aboard a SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Credit: Zero G

At the recent dedication of the main runway at the world’s first devoted commercial spaceport, Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Galactic fame) slid in an apparently innocuous but Hiroshima-sized comment.  While Virgin Galactic has practically cornered the space tourist market with the successful suborbital space flights of SpaceShipOne and upcoming flight tests of SpaceShipTwo (the larger, tourist-rated version,) apparently Branson has his sights set much higher.

According to reporters in attendance at a press conference following the dedication, Branson said, “We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years.”

I would be shocked if this didn’t set off a tsunami through the NewSpace circuits.

Furthermore, Branson said that Virgin Galactic is in talks with some of the serious commercial orbital space transportation contenders, (SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing, Lockheed, Armadillo Aerospace, etc.,)  and will soon decide whether or not to partner up to pursue NASA and commercial orbital contracts or fly solo, so-to-speak.  Official word is due in early 2011.

What does this mean?  Well, Branson’s formidable Virgin brand carries with it an overriding seriousness, even considering the intrinsic unknowns of commercial spaceflight, (as their clinching of the Ansari X Prize proved all-too-well.)  At this point, however, I believe a statement like this is a declaration that it continues to be a great time for the promise of free-market spaceflight.  It is only fitting that the comment was made at the dedication of the country’s first spaceport launch and landing lane.

Let’s hope this competition continues to force NewSpace innovation and the acceleration of hardware to orbit!

VMS Eve and VSS Enterprise circle New Mexico's Spaceport America. Credit: Mark Greenberg

Liftoff – VSS Enterprise

22 03 2010

VSS Enterprise carried by VMS Eve. Credit: Mark Greenberg

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 CompositesEnterprise 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

1977 flight test of OV-101 Enterprise. Credit: NASA

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.

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