Potentially Historic Flights Loom in Mojave

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.

Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.

Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year.

To Space at Last?

SpaceShipTwo Unity’s third powered flight test was more than four months ago on July 26. The gap in powered flights is the longest for Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo. The previous tests came at roughly 2-month intervals.

Sources in Mojave say engineers have been grappling with several issues since July. The most serious one is a crack that was discovered in one of SpaceShipTwo’s major structural components. It’s not clear how the problem was addressed.

During the July flight test, Unity fired its hybrid engine for 42 seconds and reached an altitude of 32.3 miles (170,800 ft/52 km). It was the longest engine burn and highest flight in the program’s 14-year history.

SpaceShipTwo would need to fire its engine for approximately a minute to reach some definition of space. The company appears to be aiming to reach the 50-mile (264,000 ft/80.4 km) boundary set by the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.

A higher altitude of 100 km (62.1 miles/328,084 ft), known as the Karman line, is widely recognized internationally as the beginning of space.

Stratolaunch Flight Looming?

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft on runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port following a taxi test on Friday. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

While Virgin Galactic engineers ready SpaceShipTwo for flight at the company’s FAITH hangar, preparations for the first flight of Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft are reportedly taking place at the company’s hangar just down the street on Ricommini Avenue.

The dual fuselage airplane, which is designed to air launch satellites using a range of boosters, is the largest flying machine in the world by wingspan (385 ft/117.3 m). The first flight has been eagerly anticipated since the program came out of stealth mode seven years ago in December 2011.

The aircraft has made a series of taxi tests down Runway 12-30 in Mojave in preparation for the maiden flight.

A successful flight test will undoubtedly be bittersweet: billionaire Paul Allen, who bankrolled the company, died of cancer in October without ever seeing the plane fly.

  • Jeff Smith

    Good luck to all involved!

  • P.K. Sink

    …a crack that was discovered in one of SpaceShipTwo’s major structural components…

    Ouch!

  • Jeff Smith

    Uggg

    Boom or the fuselage?

  • Cameron

    The business plan to achieve a real return on investment.

  • Douglas Messier

    The Liberty Bell’s got nothing on the crack in that plan.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Wish them both well. It will be nice to see both projects move forward.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You know, what is sad is that even if both historic flight take place they will be only mere foot notes in the history of space commerce as these are basically dead end technologies. It’s difficult to see SS2 as anything other than a very expensive amusement park ride for the super rich with no pathway to something better. Meanwhile while the limitations of the payload size for the Stratolauncher will make it at best a niche player in the satellite launch market, perhaps a very expensive one.

    What is going on in Mojave is much like what was happening at Count Zepplin’s factory. It was history, but dead end history in terms of the aviation industry.

  • P.K. Sink

    Good observations. But I still plan on getting excited…if and when there’s something to get excited about.