Virgin Galactic: the private company with a unique approach to spaceflight


SpaceShipOne was lifted from the ground by its mothership, known as White Knight One, to an altitude of approximately 45,000 feet before being jettisoned. After a brief period of gliding and descending away from White Knight One, SpaceShipOne ignited its engine – a hybrid rocket engine that used both solid and liquid fuels – and climbed at a 65 degree angle to the ground.

SpaceShipOne could eventually reach a speed of Mach 3.5 and, with the engine turned off, would continue to soar above 62 miles (100 kilometers) – the internationally recognized boundary of space, also known as the Karman Line . When coasting, its occupants would experience a brief period of weightlessness before the craft’s parabolic trajectory brought it back into the upper layers of the atmosphere.

At the peak of its run, SpaceShipOne raised its wing to allow for a more controlled reentry. After entering the atmosphere, it lowered its wing and glided to a controlled landing on a runway. SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 and currently hangs in the “Milestones of Flight” gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

SpaceShipTwo: triumph and tragedy

Just days before the success of SpaceShipOne’s X Prize campaign, Richard Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. The space line would license the technology of Scaled Composites and entrust it with the construction of a second generation spacecraft: SpaceShipTwo.

Designed to carry a crew of eight (two pilots and six passengers), SpaceShipTwo has a flight profile very similar to that of SpaceShipOne. It is carried from the ground by its mothership, White Knight Two, and, after separating and igniting its engine, is designed to reach an altitude of 68 miles. SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two are roughly double the size of their predecessors.

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