Earlier today, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceliner SpaceShip Two launched off the Mojave air and spaceport located approximately 90 miles (145km) off Los Angeles, California. This was the spaceliner’s fourth test flight which was preceded by three other test flights in April, May, and July this year, reaching 16 miles (25.7km), 21.7 miles (34.9 km), and 32.3 miles (52km) respectively. This test flight was able to reach 51.4 miles (82.7km) in altitude.
This has been the farthest that the programme has ever reached in all of its past endeavours. This test was powered by Virgin Galactic’s second Vehicle, the VSS Unity. The first vehicle VSS Eva was destroyed in a crash in 2014 due to a fault in their re-entry system named “Feathering” which deployed too soon into the re-entry procedure. The WhiteKnight Two carrier plane escorted SpaceShip Two to a height of 50,000 feet.
Once at the altitude, the pilots of the ship, Mark Stucky and Frederick C.J. Sturckow ignited the spaceliner’s rocket motors which burned for a total time of around 60 seconds. This enabled the spaceliner to reach the speed of Mach 2.9 and plummeted the craft to an altitude of 51.4 miles or 82.7 km from the surface of the Earth. This is whence the spaceliner initiated its re-entry procedure and Feathered to descend back to the Earth.
Also on board, were testing equipment from NASA which were supposed to conduct investigations on the behaviour of dust on planetary surfaces, the effect of microgravity on plant growth, reducing vibrational loads on scientific equipment, and re-entry and landing, accounting for four NASA funded investigations on board. Upon reaching the 50-mile mark, NASA congratulated the pilots by stating “welcome to suborbital space.”
Controversies surround the accomplishment about whether they actually achieved flight into space. While the formal line for space is set at the Karman Line, 62-mile (100km) from the Earth, space-like conditions such as microgravity begin much before that and are present at the 50 miles achieved by the flight crew. The altitude is also enough for most organisations including the US Air Force and NASA to distinguish between pilots and astronauts. Even the company claims to have reached space. However, critics beg to disagree.
“We’ve had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, told reporters.
In other related news, there are signs of an upcoming Private Space Race between companies as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin gears up for their own orbital space launches. Virgin claims that the first commercial orbital flight would be ready in a matter of months and would give customers around five minutes of exposure to microgravity before re-entry.
Tickets are to be priced at $250,000 per head in contrast to Blue Origin which may charge as much as $300,000 per customer. Many people like Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber have already saved up for the act. Other companies participating in this space race include SpaceX, Boeing Co, and Stratolaunch.