Back in December, we reported on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first commercial spaceship. Christened the VSS Enterprise, the vessel is a sub-orbital spacecraft capable of ferrying two pilots and six passengers into the thermosphere (an apogee of about 110 km). On July 15th, the Enterprise completed its first crewed flight.
The Obama Administration’s National Space Policy puts a heavy emphasis on the private sector. With the pending retirement of the Space Shuttle, companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing have been tasked with providing transportation to the International Space Station (which won’t retire until at least 2020). But the Enterprise is something else entirely—space tourism.
For $200,000 a head, tourists can enjoy a suborbital spaceflight—which, depending on one’s definition, is either 62 miles above sea level (the Kármán line), or above 50 miles (the US Air Force definition). From an altitude of 15,200 m (50,000 ft), the Enterprise launches from its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, reaching a top speed of 4,200 km/h (2,600 mph). It uses a “feathered reentry system,” resulting in low re-entry speeds—thus, Burt Rutan (President of Scaled Composites, a partner company) claims the Enterprise will be “100 times safer than government space travel.” By contrast, the Space Shuttle re-enters at orbital speeds (25,000 km/h or 16,000 mph).
Through the duration of its first crewed flight, the Enterprise remained attached to WhiteKnightTwo (VMS Eve) in captive carry configuration. Numerous tests were conducted, and the two crew members (Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury) evaluated the Enterprise’s systems and functions. The 6 hour and 12 minute flight was declared a success.
Virgin Galactic has deposits from 340 would-be space tourists. While the first commercial flight hasn’t been announced, it’s expected to be sometime in 2011.