"Liftoff!" with Training Wheels

Some of you may remember back in December when I mentioned the public unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo craft — soon to be “the world’s first commercial spaceship.” Now christened the VSS Enterprise (yeah!), the ship is back in the news with another historic milestone.

VSS Enterprise in captive carry flight

VSS Enterprise (aka SpaceShipTwo) in captive flight with WhiteKnightTwo

Mounted on a pylon between the twin fuselages of the WhiteKnightTwo (piloted by Mark Stucky), the Enterprise had its maiden “captive carry” flight. After months of ground testing, this was the first time Enterprise actually got airborne. Taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, the ships spent just under 3 minutes soaring over the desert, reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet. The purpose was to evaluate the aerodynamics of Enterprise itself and of the interaction between the two ships and the center pylon. The tests involved the high-tech method of attaching several pieces of yarn to the pylon for observation.

“We were able to accomplish virtually 100 percent of the flight cards, we cleared the envelope out to the full release speed and altitude on the very first flight,” said Stucky. “Things just went really well.”

Next on the docket are more captive flights, followed by several non-powered glide flights, subsonic powered flights, supersonic powered flights, and finally suborbital space flights. Rigorous and varied testing continues into 2011. Then, of course, the good ship Enterprise has to get certified for commercial flight by the FAA.

While the President slashes programs and budgets for NASA, this bold, new branch in the history of manned spaceflight continues to progress, thanks to those great motivators: fame and fortune. In other words, “private enterprise”. Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson called the flight “a testament to US engineering and innovation.”

Capitalism at its best! Cool.

P.S.  For a bigger version of the above pic, plus five more images, go here. For brief videoclips of the flight, go here.

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