Branson's magnificent flying machines (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Sub-orbital space tourism took a step forward on Monday 22 March 2010 when Virgin Galactic’s first spaceplane, VSS Enterprise, took to the air for the first time. The amazing craft was carried by its equally extraordinary twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo mothership throughout the flight which was made from Mojave Air and Space Port, California. The combined vehicles reached an an altitude of 45 000 ft (13.7 km) during the test flight which lasted nearly three hours.

Over the next couple of years, Enterprise will make more such “captive carry” flights, followed by missions where it will be released to glide down to a runway landing. Eventually it will be released to soar to high altitude powered by its revolutionary hybrid rocket engine. Some time later it, and its four planned sister ships, ought to begin carrying fare-paying passengers just over the Karman Line (100 km above the surface) On their return they can boast about having been into space.

This is a project I have expressed concerns about in the past (see ‘A not so giant leap for mankind’ here ) but it is an amazing piece of technology which I hope will be a huge success.


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