A private spaceship built to launch space tourists on suborbital joyrides could by flying on its own by this fall, SPACE.com has learned.
The SpaceShipTwo spacecraft VSS Enterprise, which the space tourism company Virgin Galactic has been flying on test flights attached to a huge mothership, could make its first drop flights over California's Mojave Desert for glide and landing tests.
"There's a reasonable possibility that we could see the first drop flight in the fall, but as always, everything is predicated on thoroughness and safety," Virgin Galactic's commercial director Stephen Attenborough told SPACE.com in an e-mail. "No corners will be cut in order to achieve arbitrary deadlines."
Founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is developing a fleet of SpaceShipTwo spaceliners to launch paying thrillseekers on suborbital hops into space. [Photos of SpaceShipTwo in flight.]
SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry eight people (six passengers and two pilots) on suborbital flights that would reach outer space for a few minutes before returning back to Earth. The spacecraft is designed to drop from a mothership, called WhiteKnightTwo, from an altitude above 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) and fire a hybrid rocket motor to launch into suborbital space.
At $200,000 a ticket, paying passengers on SpaceShipTwo will experience weightlessness and glimpse the darkness of space and the view of Earth below. SpaceShipTwo is one of several private spaceships under development for space tourism or other commercial uses.
The upcoming drop test will follow a series of test flights with SpaceShipTwo safely attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, the most recent of which occurred last week. That test flight marked the first crewed SpaceShipTwo flight.
In the wake of that success, Virgin Galactic is planning to push forward with further test flights of the new spacecraft. The recent crewed captive-carry test flight of the vehicle went very smoothly, they said.
"The flight lasted over 6 hours and numerous combined vehicle systems tests were conducted," Attenborough said. "All the objectives of the flight were met."
The exact schedule for future test flights, and the first commercial flights, is flexible.
"Scaled will need to evaluate the data from this recent captive carry flight before we know [when the next test will be]," Attenborough said. "It is true to say though that to date testing of both vehicles is progressing very smoothly."
The first passenger flights will not occur until an exhaustive test flight program is completed, and the spacecraft have won all necessary regulatory approvals, he said.
SpaceShipTwo's predecessor, the smaller suborbital craft SpaceShipOne also designed by Rutan, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable, piloted suborbital spacecraft in 2004. That vehicle was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and also built by Scaled Composites.