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.