Virgin Galactic successfully completed a third rocket-powered supersonic flight of its reusable spaceship Friday, keeping the company on track to launch commercial space flights from New Mexico’s Spaceport America later this year.
SpaceShipTwo took off from Virgin Galactic’s flight test facility in Mojave, Calif., and reached its highest altitude yet, 71,000 feet, and clocked a speed of Mach 1.4.
Another milestone: Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot Dave Mackay commanded the flight deck for the first time under rocket power.
“This was a great way to start off for 2014, the year we hope to fly commercially from Spaceport America,” said Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Wilson.
Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to become the world’s first commercial spaceline, sending tourists to space from Spaceport America.
New Mexico taxpayers in 2007 approved $225 million in funding for the spaceport located in the des- ert outside Truth or Consequences, where Virgin Galactic is already paying rent as the facility’s anchor tenant. The company has said it will shift operations to New Mexico once its test program is complete.
On Friday, Mackay and a co-pilot tested two critical systems, the spaceship’s “reaction control system” and a thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail. The control system allows pilots to maneuver the vehicle in space, while the thermal system is designed to protect vehicle skin temperatures while the rocket motor fires.
Mackay called it “a very exciting day.”
“It’s a long way up there, about twice as high as airliners will typically fly,” he said. “The sky is getting dark. It’s an amazing view.”
The definition of “space” varies internationally, but, in the U.S., it means reaching 250,000 feet of altitude.
The company said in a statement that the test met all its objectives. The spaceship successfully used its feather system to glide back toward Earth; the pilots ultimately disengage the feather system and land as would a regular aircraft.
SpaceShipTwo previously rocketed to an altitude of 56,000 feet during its second successful test flight in September.
Virgin Galactic does not make its flight schedule public, but Whitesides said testing “will go up in frequency as we go through the year.”
Close to 680 people have made reservations — secured with a hefty downpayment — for a $250,000 spaceflight.