SpaceShipTwo makes landmark flight

Mojave hosts another milestone in commercial space flight

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

SpaceShipTwo makes landmark flightThe eyes of the space-watching world were once again focused on Mojave Air and Space Port early Monday morning when the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo successfully tested its rocket and broke the sound barrier — leaping over one of the final milestones on the trajectory toward being the first privately funded craft to take humans into space.

“In some ways this was the most important test of the program,” said Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Group, who was among the 1,000 VIPs, media and space junkies who could clearly see the burn from the ground at Mojave.

Also among the witnesses were Burt Rutan, whose design inspired SpaceShipTwo, and Stu Witt, airport CEO and chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

The 16-second burn took the craft to Mach 1.2 without a hitch.

“From an aerodynamic standpoint, this flight today was the biggest risk in terms of starting from subsonic, going transonic then going supersonic,” said Rutan. SpaceShipTwo performed perfectly throughout that critical transition, he said.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whiteside praised Mark Stucky, one of two pilots and the one manning the controls, for remaining “cool as a cucumber” while “knocking it out of the park.”

Monday’s test was a huge step toward commercial space travel, he said. “What we are going to do is progress through the rest of the year toward space flight — substantially before the end of the year, we believe. Then soon after that we’ll be able to begin commercial service,” said Whitesides.

“Today was a huge step forward for the program and the company. Now we’re looking to start taking people into space soon.”

The expense of space travel is expected to limit those passengers to the super rich — about 500 of whom have already signed up at the $200,000 price tag to spend just a few minutes in space.

But if those prices seem steep, that cost is dwarfed by the $500 million Branson is already estimated to have invested in the program (which is expected to cost another $100 million before the first civilian experiences zero gravity aboard the craft).

While the technical minds of the project continue to dream up and hammer out the logistics of unimaginable new achievements of man, the general populace — particularly those in the aerospace corridor — takes pride in and part ownership of the accomplishments of the relatively small crew that has garnered international attention.

“We live for this. This is what we do best,” said Witt. “We get up every morning and work with the same crew — and doesn’t everybody?”

The event was not publicly announced, but somehow that thousand managed to make it to the airport to witness history.

“There’s a tremendous thirst for heroes in America. There’s an enormous thirst for doing something that’s risky, that has some human drama, that will generate enormous outcomes for mankind,” said Witt. People like Branson and Rutan simply need the freedom to build, and they will deliver.

Although Mojave has for decades played a significant role in aerospace and commercial spaceflight, those activities were ramped up in the early 2000s with the announcement of the X Prize — a $10 million cash prize offered by self-made billionaire Anousheh Ansari to the first private company to make it into space. Rutan, with his small outfit Scaled Composite, built SpaceShipOne, which made the successful 62-mile trek through the atmosphere to reach suborbital space in 2004.

Mojave has also hosted such companies as Space X and XCOR, which are leading private industry in building craft — more quickly and less expensively than NASA.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former commander of the International Space Station and current president of CSF, who was also on hand for the test, pointed out that the expense of launching experiments into orbit limits advancement. But SpaceShipTwo’s success makes microgravity more accessible.

“With operations like that, you can take off several times a week, you can get your experiment on over and over again. That repeatability is very important.”

He predicted that as commercial companies take up suborbital and low-earth-orbit operations, NASA will be free to concentrate on farther-reaching goals, including Mars.

Meanwhile, Witt continues to work with lawmakers to make sure that Mojave — hailed by companies as a “haven for entrepreneurs” — maintains the ability to provide explorers with the freedom to conquer the final frontier.

“Nine years and seven months ago, those 19 acres of hangars were not there,” said Witt. He pointed out other thriving developments that were nonexistent then. “At Mojave Space Port, this industry is real and I think Kern County should take great pride in what has been collected here.”

Among those working alongside Witt to preserve this important industry in Kern County are Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Kern County 2nd District Supervisor Zack Scrivner, the latter of whom was onsite Monday, and both of whom offered their excitement and congratulations for Monday’s achievement.

“The hardworking people at Virgin Galactic and Mojave continue to demonstrate the endless possibilities when entrepreneurship and innovation are combined, and I look forward to more groundbreaking achievements in East Kern this year,” said McCarthy.

Branson’s own remarks underscore the fact that regardless of who is responsible for the achievement, the human race is certainly the beneficiary.

“Today I think we can be 100-percent sure that people watching out there today will go to space, and they will be able to marvel at this beautiful earth we have — a very historic day.”

Story First Published: 2013-05-01