American manned spaceplane. Study 2009. Development of the much larger SpaceShipTwo suborbital commercial manned spacecraft was announced in July 2005.
The reusable, six-passenger spacecraft was to begin flight test in 2007 and begin commercial operations from New Mexico in 2008.
In July 2005 Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of the Virgin Group of Companies, announced the formation of a joint venture called The Spaceship Company. The purpose of The Spaceship Company was to oversee the development and production of SpaceShipTwo, a commercial suborbital spacecraft based on technology developed for SpaceShipOne. The joint venture would contract out the production of up to five SpaceShipTwo vehicles to Scaled Composites; those vehicles would be sold to Virgin Galactic, which planned to put them into commercial service offering suborbital space tourism flights starting in 2008. The venture would also develop a carrier aircraft, White Knight 2, that would be used to air-launch SpaceShipTwo in much the same manner that the original White Knight aircraft air-launched SpaceShipOne. The spacecraft was a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne, capable of carrying 2 pilots and six passengers on suborbital spaceflights to altitudes over 100 kilometers.
On 13 December 2005, it was announced that Virgin Galactic would undertake a joint venture with the New Mexico state government to construct Spaceport America, a $225 million facility to be located near Upham, New Mexico. The venture was approved by the state legislature and the funding plans signed into law by governor Bill Richardson on 1 March 2006. Virgin Galactic was to be the first customer to operate manned spacecraft from this facility.
Six months of intensive testing of the spacecraft (comprising at least 50-100 test flights) was planned for 2007. Suborbital flights would last three hours overall, with seven minutes of weightlessness. It was intended that passengers would be able to release themselves from their seats and float around the cabin to truly experience weightlessness.
Contrary to press reports, the hybrid rocket engine for SpaceShipTwo was being developed internally by Burt Rutan Scaled Rocket Propulsion Team.
SpaceShipTwo is carried to its launch altitude by a Scaled Composites White Knight Two, before being released to fly on into the upper atmosphere powered by its rocket engine. It then glides back to Earth and performs a conventional runway landing. The spaceship was officially unveiled to the public on 7 December 2009 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. On 29 April 2013, after nearly three years of unpowered testing, the first one constructed successfully performed its first powered test flight.
Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes in a private passenger-carrying service and has been taking bookings for some time, with a suborbital flight carrying an updated ticket price of US$250,000. The spaceplane could also be used to carry scientific payloads for NASA and other organizations.
On 31 October 2014 during a test flight, VSS Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo craft, broke up in-flight and crashed in the Mojave desert. A preliminary investigation suggested the feathering system, the craft's descent device, deployed too early. One pilot was killed; the other was treated for a serious shoulder injury after parachuting from the stricken spacecraft.