Branson Muses About SpaceShipTwo Flight in April, Point-to-Point Travel

Screenshot, Business Insider Nordic

Ah, yeah…about that….Maybe if Virgin Galactic was already in powered flights. As it is, they still have at least one more glide flight to conduct. And they haven’t conducted one of those in two months.

It’s possible they only get one powered flight test off the ground by the end of the year. Would that leave them prepared to begin commercial flights by April? Probably not. There are a lot of variables involved — number of test flights, pace of testing, problems they discover — but six months would be pushing it.

Well, whatever. It’s not like we haven’t been down this road before. For like 13 years now. Virgin Galactic might consider re-imposing the ban on Branson predicting flight schedules that existed until recently.

If you read the story, Branson also talks about point-to-point travel.

“To get to space we’re going to be flying a craft that’s going 3000 miles per hour [4827 km/h] We are going to be the only people in the world, in a few months, to be flying a craft that’s going 3000 [mph]. Taking that craft and looking at point to point travel is something we are going to be in the best position in the world to do.”

A quick Google search finds estimates of SpaceShipTwo’s top speed as varying from 2,485, 2,500 and 2,600 mph. So, unless that has changed with the engine tests they’ve been doing, the spacecraft’s maximum speed accepting the highest number is a shade under Mach 3.4. (A speed of 3,000 mph puts you at Mach 3.9.)

For rapid suborbital point to point suborbital travel, you probably need hypersonic speeds and vastly improved thermal protection. Hypersonic speed is defined as Mach 5 (3,836 mph) and above. At those speeds, all sorts of strange things start happening to materials, control surfaces and other systems you need to keep from having a really bad day.

Have there been advances in these areas? Yes. Can SpaceShipTwo — or some successor craft based on it — be built to fly hypersonic? Branson thinks so. Most engineers I’ve asked about this seriously doubt it.

Hypersonic point-to-point travel is a hard nut to crack. The world’s major military establishments are working on it so they can bomb each other quickly should the need arise. Even if you can develop a system for passenger service, there’s the whole issue of whether you can make it profitable. We’ve been down this road before with the Concorde.

I never say never. Anything is possible. Maybe they do have a viable plan. But, I would need to see a lot more than Branson’s hopeful musings to be convinced that SpaceShipTwo is leading in that direction.