Yesterday in Mojave, the Scaled Composites-built suborbital rocket plane SpaceShipTwo lit its rocket engine for the first time and cracked the sound barrier. Pilot Mark Stucky and copilot Mike Alsbury were at the controls of the spaceship, and pilot Dave Mackay and copilot Clint Nichols flew the White Knight Two carrier jet that took the spaceship up to launch altitude.
It was the first time in more than 9 years that a manned suborbital spaceship has achieved powered flight. The last flight was by the SpaceShipOne prototype that convinced Richard Branson to sign the Scaled team on to get his Virgin Galactic company off the ground.
This flight seems like a long time in coming. But the developers of these new vehicles cannot afford a misstep. One crash would almost certainly spell the end of a given program, and call the whole enterprise into question besides. The engineers and test pilots working on these ships want to be as certain as they can be that nothing will go wrong in flight, and so they’ve been taking their own sweet time getting everything right.
Things should move faster now. SpaceShipTwo’s first run to space could come by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a second-generation manned suborbital ship called Lynx is under construction in the XCOR hangar just down the flight line from Scaled’s hangar. The XCOR team is looking at first powered flight this year as well, with a ship that can blast off from the runway under its own power, without relying on a carrier aircraft.
And way down at the end of the runway at Mojave, a brand new hangar houses another Scaled project, the carrier plane being built for Stratolaunch. That mothership will be the world’s largest airplane, with a 385-foot wingspan and powered by 6 jet engines salvaged from a pair of Boeing 747s.
All the while, the unmanned vertical takeoff/vertical landing rockets of Masten Space Systems, just across Sabovich Street from Scaled, achieve ever greater heights and feats of autonomous control.
It’s an exciting time to be in Mojave. I’m envious of blogger Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc, who has a ringside seat to all the action from his office in the old control tower at Mojave Air and Space Port.