Virgin Galactic Sends SpaceShipTwo Above 50 Miles

Virgin Galactic Sends SpaceShipTwo Above 50 Miles

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) took two pilots above 50 miles (80 kilometers) in altitude today, which some consider the demarcation between air and space.  The FAA, which licensed the flight, does use 50 miles and said it will award commercial astronaut wings to the pilots.  Others use 62 miles (100 kilometers).  Regardless of whether SS2 reached “space” today, the flight marks an achievement that has been more than a decade in the making and moves Richard Branson’s company one step closer to flying passengers on suborbital flights.

Today’s test flight took off from the Mojave Desert in California.  Pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow were carried aloft in Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft.  VSS Unity separated from the carrier aircraft at about 43,000 feet and fired its rocket engine for 60 seconds, reaching an altitude of 271,268 feet, which is 51.4 miles or 82.7 kilometers. It reached a speed of Mach 2.9 before returning to land at Mojave Air & Space Port.


SpaceShipTwo landing at Mojave Air and Space Port, Mojave, CA, Dec. 13, 2018. Credit: Virgin Galactic

NASA flew four science and technology experiments on the flight as part of its Flight Opportunities program: Collisions into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE), Microgravity Multi-Phase Flow Experiment for Suborbital Testing, Validating Telemetric Imaging Hardware for Crew-Assisted and Crew-Autonomous Biological Imaging in Suborbital Applications; and Vibration Isolation Platform.

FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell welcomed the news.  The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch industry and licensed today’s flight.

FAA Associate Administrator for Policy, International Affairs and Environment Bailey Edwards said in a statement that “[s]afely growing the aerospace sector” is a Trump Administration priority and invited the pilots and company officials to Washington “in the new year for Mark and CJ to receive their wings.”

SS2 is the first spaceship developed entirely by the private sector and designed to carry private passengers on a commercial basis.  It is derived from Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 by flying the same vehicle above 100 kilometers twice within 7 days.  Branson bought the rights to the design soon thereafter with the goal of making suborbital passenger flights to space routine.  In 2008, he asserted that passengers would be flying in 18 months, but that date slipped again and again.  A fatal test flight in 2014 slowed the program further.

Branson called today’s flight a “momentous day” where for the first time a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space as well as his company’s first revenue generating flight.  Company CEO George Whitesides added that “What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century’s defining industries.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association that promotes commercial human spaceflight, congratulated Virgin Galactic, one of its members.  CSF President Eric Stallmer said the “commercial space industry will create unprecedented opportunities for space tourism and democratize space for all.”

As to whether it made a “space” flight is debatable.  Where air ends and space begins is not set in law, domestic or international.  The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the international body that determines aviation and space records.  It sets that boundary at 100 kilometers, the so-called Karman line.  That is the criterion that was used for the Ansari X-Prize.

The U.S. Air Force and NASA, however, historically have used 80 kilometers and the FAA adopted it.  A number of X-15 pilots were awarded astronaut wings for their flights in the 1960s for crossing that threshold.  Just recently, NASA concluded that astronaut Nick Hague made a spaceflight on Soyuz MS-10 even though the flight was aborted about two minutes after liftoff and did not attain orbit. Automated systems instantly separated the crew capsule from the disintegrating rocket and boosted it to an altitude where it could descend under parachute almost as though it was returning from orbit.  The crew capsule reached 93 kilometers altitude, however NASA’s statement was that it counts it as a spaceflight for Hague and his Russian crew mate Aleksey Ovchinin because they “launched and landed in a spacecraft or an intended mission to the International Space Station” without mentioning any altitude.

With the advent of commercial companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin eager to give astronaut wings to passengers on their suborbital flights, how to define the boundary is the subject of debate.  Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory and author of Jonathan’s Space Report recently published a paper concluding that from a historical, physical and technological perspective, 80 kilometers is more appropriate than 100 km.

The FAI announced that based on that and other recent analyses, it will hold a workshop in 2019 in collaboration with the International Astronautical Federation to revisit the definition.

If one accepts that VSS Unity reached space today, it is the first time an American-built spaceship was launched from American soil since the final space shuttle flight, STS-135, in July 2011.

The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle program.  NASA relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  Through public-private partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing, NASA is developing two new “commercial crew” systems to ferry crews back and forth to ISS.  Test flights are scheduled for next year.  They are entirely different from SS2 since they must go into and return from orbit, which is much more difficult than a suborbital flight.

Update:  This article was updated to add that NASA’s decision to count Soyuz MS-10 as a spaceflight for Hague and Ovchinin was independent of the altitude reached.


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