SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight No. 3: A Photo Essay

Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Here’s a photo essay of the SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight, which took place on Friday. The suborbital spacecraft fired its engine for 20 seconds, reaching a speed of Mach 1.4 and an altitude of 71,000 feet.

Fueling of the ship takes place in the early morning hours, and then the vehicle taxis out to the runway in the pre-dawn darkness for a series of checks by the pilots and ground crew.

Virgin Galactic Chief Test Pilot David Mackay. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic Chief Test Pilot David Mackay after an earlier test flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On this occasion, Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay made his first powered flight in SpaceShipTwo with Scaled Composites test pilot Mark Stucky as co-pilot. Virgin Galactic pilot Mike Masucci and Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were at the controls of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath it just after takeoff. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath just after takeoff. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Masucci and Alsbury rolled WhiteKnightTwo down the runway and took off at 7:22 a.m. PST. In keeping with standard test procedures, the aircraft did not take off until after sunrise, which had occurred 21 minutes earlier.

After takeoff, there isn’t much for people to do on the ground but wait. It usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour for WhiteKnightTwo to reach the drop altitude of about 46,000 feet. Just prior to dropping the spacecraft, WhiteKnightTwo emits twin vapor trails that allow ground observers to better track it.

Over the scanner comes the final countdown. “5…4…3…2…1…”

SpaceShipTwo is dropped over Koehn Lake. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo is dropped over Koehn Lake. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo drops in a sparsely populated area about 20 to 30 miles north of the Mojave Spaceport. In the pictures, the southern Sierra Nevada mountains are at the bottom, the mostly dry Koehn Lake is to the upper left, and a test track formerly used by Honda Motors is seen in the upper right.

SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Looking back as SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Looking back as SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

For the first two powered flights, I and my photographer friend Ken Brown had watched from the Mojave, which is quite a distance away. This time, Ken found a spot for us on a mountain that overlooks Koehn Lake to be closer to the action. It was very remote. First there were paved roads, then dirt roads with ruts in the them, then even dirtier roads with hills and even bigger ruts in them.

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time. (Credit: Ken Brown)

It was an adventure. And Ken got some great pictures using his telephoto lens. He’s a really talented photographer.

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

So are the guys over at MarsScientific, who teamed up with the Clay Center Observator to get this photo of the powered flight.

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.
SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.

The mountain was a very cool place to view the flight. It was utterly silent up there, with just me and Ken standing there and probably nobody else within miles. We watched the powered flight intently, snapping away with our cameras. The engine burned out as SpaceShipTwo soared upward.

“That was pretty short,” I said. “How long do you think it burned for? Maybe twenty–”

Just then, the roar of the engine rolled over us. Ken began counting. “1…2…3…4…”

He got to 27 seconds, but it seems he was counting too quickly. The actual burn was 20 seconds, the same as on the last SpaceShipTwo powered flight in September.

SpaceShipTwo at 71,000 feet over the Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo at 71,000 feet over the Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mackay and Stucky tested the SpaceShipTwo’s feather re-entry system, RCS maneuvering system and new thermal protection system on the tail booms during the flight. They soared to 71,000 feet, some 2,000 feet above the previous record altitude, and viewed the curvature of the Earth on the horizon.