“The pilots described it as being a gentler ignition than they expected. It was a smoother, gentler acceleration,” Mickey says. Transonic transition was nominal “which was the milestone of this flight,” he adds. The vehicle glided back to Mojave where it landed safely just after 8 a.m.
“It's a good start, but we still have to get through Max q and supersonic reentry and various other milestones,” says Virgin Galactic President/CEO George Whitesides. However, in terms of the overall flight-test program, Whitesides says the success of the initial powered flight is a pivotal achievement. “If you look at the overall risk embedded in the program, this flight reduced a large portion of that risk. With any supersonic vehicle, this is probably one of the most important test milestones to get through, and the vehicle's performance through Mach 1 looked good in terms of flutter. In terms of a single flight, this was probably the greatest burden of risk in the flight-test program.”
The start of powered tests is also expected to boost business for Virgin Galactic, the world's first registered spaceline. Passenger bookings have passed 570, according to Whitesides. “We are looking at up to 600 pretty soon. Most people are probably eager to have it tested out,” he says. In addition, business is anticipated from scientific experiments, including flight tests of developmental space-access technology payloads for NASA's Flight Opportunities Program.
Work on additional RM2 rocket motors meanwhile continues at Sierra Nevada Corp., which Whitesides confirms will continue to be the baseline choice for propulsion. “We've had a bunch of contracts looking at tweaks to the hybrid rocket, but our baseline is what we're doing now. We will keep working with different folks to keep improving (the propulsion system) but the qualification program went really well.”