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SpaceShipTwo Reaches ‘Feathered’ Flight Milestone

May 5, 2011

Early Wednesday in the skies over Mojave Air and Spaceport CA, the world’s first commercial spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, made a milestone glide-test flight and demonstrated its unique reentry “Ëœfeather’ configuration for the first time.

The test flight, the third in less than two weeks, marked another major key achievement in Virgin Galactic’s path to powered test flights and commercial operations.

“What an awesome way to start the day. SpaceShipTwo looked positively beautiful today on her maiden feathered flight!” Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic vice president for special projects, said in a Twitter post.

During the latest test flight, SpaceShipTwo did not fire its rocket engine to climb into space. Instead, a mothership lifted it to 52,000 feet where it was released. It then rotated its twin tail booms upward 65 degrees, said Virgin Galactic.

As the spacecraft descended nearly vertically through the air, it was slowed by the drag of the folded tail, similar to the way feathers slow a badminton shuttlecock. The re-configuration will be a critical part of the ship’s descent through the Earth’s atmosphere after suborbital trips to space.

At 34,000 feet pilots returned the ship to its normal configuration and landed it like a regular airplane. The test flight lasted only 11 minutes, including 75 seconds in its “feathered” mode.

All objectives for the test were successful and detailed flight data is now being analyzed by engineers at Scaled Composites, designers and builders of the sub-orbital spacecraft.

“This morning’s spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles,” said George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic.

“We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history,” said Whitesides.

“In all test flight programs, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real. This morning’s flight was a test pilot’s dream,” said Pete Siebold, who, along with Clint Nichols, piloted the spaceship.

“The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound is a great testament to the whole team,” he added.

SpaceShipTwo (SS2), named VSS Enterprise, has now flown solo seven times since its debut in December 2009 and since the completion of its ground and captive-carry test program.

SS2 is based on Burt Rutan’s award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately funded manned rocket to reach space in 2004.

SS2′s unique reentry has been hyped by aerospace experts as a way to overcome the problem of searing heat that other types of spacecraft endure when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds.

Powered flights of SS2 are expected to come sometimes this year. So far, all test flights have been unpowered glide flights.

No date is set for the first commercial flight yet. But more than 400 people have already paid a $200,000 deposit for a chance to spend a few fleeting moments in space, according to Virgin Galactic.

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