Virgin Galactic put out a press release last week along with this video about the successful conclusion of the first round of rocket motor tests for its SpaceShipTwo passenger ship, being built by Scaled Composites.
Not too many technical details here, so I did some digging to find out more. Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn referred my queries to Mark Sirangelo, manager at engine contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation. Sirangelo gave me just a few more tidbits before passing me on to Scaled Composites president Doug Shane, who told me simply, “Sorry, but we’re not able to provide any further information at this time.”
Scaled kept mum throughout the development of SpaceShipOne, the first privately built ship to send an astronaut out of the atmosphere, and its managers want to do the same here. The involvement of Virgin Galactic in this project has pushed the door open a little further, but only to a point.
“These were the first full scale live fire of this version of motor system and fuel,” Sirangelo told me in an email exchange. The tests began last December and concluded last month, he said.
“The primary goals were to obtain actual information regarding motor and fuel performance from the research conducted over the past year regarding the search for the optimal combination of subsystems, fuel choice and overall motor design.” In other words, the tests allowed the team to nail down the design choices they had made on paper and get the data they needed for tweaks before the next phase of testing.
“I can’t commit on the next round of tests at this point,” said Siranangelo.
It seems likely that the next round of tests will ramp up to full-duration burns; when I asked Sirangelo whether that had been accomplished during the recent tests, he mutely referred me to videos showing a burn of about 20 seconds. SpaceShipTwo’s motor will need to fire for several times that duration to send its paying passengers into space.
“There has been a tremendous amount of work completed on the entire program,” Sirangelo told me, “and we all can see the first revenue flight in the not to distant future. It is amazing when one steps back to realize what we are doing and to see the dream many of us had turn into reality. We are thrilled to be part of making space history.”