Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: What we know


The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to two pilots, there can be up to four people in the cabin. The special SpaceShipTwo flying on Sunday is called VSS Unity.

Unity was moved to an altitude of about 50,000 feet in a larger plane to take off from the ground. There, Unity was released and the rocket plane’s engine was fired. The acceleration allowed the people on board to feel a force of up to 3.5 times their normal weight as they ascended to an altitude of more than 50 mph.

At the top of the bow, those on board could see the darkness of space and the curve of the Earth through the windows of the airplane. They also rose from their seats and experienced about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Fifty miles up, the Earth’s downward gravitational force is essentially as strong as on the ground; rather, the passengers were falling at the same speed as the aircraft around them.

The two tail booms at the rear of the spaceplane were then spun into a “feathered” configuration creating greater drag and stability and allowing the aircraft to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This SpaceShipTwo configuration is more like a badminton shuttlecock that always falls with the pointed side down, rather than an airplane.

Still, the forces felt by the passengers while descending were greater than when ascending, reaching six times the force of gravity.

When the aircraft returned to the atmosphere, the tail booms returned and the aircraft began landing.


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