SpaceShipTwo Makes Safe Landing After Tense Test Flight

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A malfunction during the most recent test flight of the private spacecraft SpaceShipTwo sent the vehicle hurtling out of control until its crew could stabilize the craft for a safe landing.

The issue provided some heart-stopping moments for its airborne crew and ground handlers, but also allowed the vehicle’s owner, Virgin Galactic, to showcase the craft’s safety features.

The commercial space plane made its 16th glide flight on Sept. 29, following a hiatus for hangar work. For the first time, SpaceShipTwo carried a three-person crew — two pilots and a flight test engineer. To begin, SpaceShipTwo was lifted to high altitude by its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo. After a clean release, SpaceShipTwo immediately entered a rapid descent. Springing into action, the crew deployed the ship’s novel feather re-entry system.

SpaceShipTwo’s ability to feather its tail section is a safety feature that increases the vehicle’s stability during atmospheric re-entry. Akin to the flight of a shuttlecock in badminton, the feather system allows SpaceShipTwo to rely on aerodynamics and the laws of physics to control speed and altitude.

The glide flight lasted a brief seven minutes and 15 seconds.

“Upon release, the spaceship experienced a downward pitch rate that caused a stall of the tails. The crew followed procedure, selecting the feather mode to revert to a benign condition. The crew then de-feathered and had a nominal return to base,” officials from Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif.-based builder of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system, wrote in an updated flight log posted on the company’s website.

Scaled Composites is constructing the private spaceship fleet for Virgin Galactic, a spaceline company for suborbital space tourism backed by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

“Great flying by the team and good demo of feather system,” Scaled officials wrote in the flight log.

According to one observer of the craft’s rapid descent, “It dropped like a rock and went straight down. It was a nail-biter … but that’s how you learn.”

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive officer and president, said the glide flight included a third seat flight test engineer onboard SpaceShipTwo for the first time. “A good capability for us to have for this phase of test,” he said. “Yes, apparently the tails exhibited stall characteristics in the test — which was a steep nose down maneuver.”

Whitesides confirmed that SpaceShipTwo was ultimately able to carry out a nominal landing.

“Scaled is looking at the data now, but doesn’t anticipate any major issues,” Whitesides said. “This is why we flight test, to fully explore the aerodynamic flight envelope.”