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How Virgin Galactic Works

WK2 and SS2 Flight Plans
A view of the Earth from SpaceShipOne
A view of the Earth from SpaceShipOne
Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic

The flight plan for Virgin Galactic's WK2/SS2 flights calls for a suborbital flight. A suborbital flight has a parabolic flight path -- like the shape that's made when you throw a rock into the air and it falls back down. The spacecraft won't fly fast enough to go into low Earth orbit as the space shuttle does (meaning it won't travel around the globe). The flights will be somewhat like the early Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil I. Grissom, but will last longer.

WK2 will take off from the ground like any jet aircraft -- but with SS2 attached to the underside. When it gets to an altitude of 50,000 feet, it will release SS2. When the SS2 pilots ignite the hybrid rocket motor, SS2 will accelerate vertically to Mach 3 in about 90 seconds (the crew and passengers will experience 3 to 4 Gs during this time) and climb to more than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). After the engine is shut off, the wings will be feathered in preparation for re-entry (see previous page). During this time, SS2 will be at its highest point -- about 360,000 feet (109,728 m) -- and the crew and passengers will experience weightlessness.

Then the passengers return to their seats and recline for re-entry. During re-entry, the passengers will pull about 6 Gs. SS2 will feather until it falls to an altitude of 70,000 feet, when the pilots reconfigure the wings from feather mode to glider mode, and SS2 will glide to a landing back at the spaceport. The total flight time will have been two and a half hours. Upon return, the passengers will celebrate and receive their astronaut wings.

In the United States, people who fly more than 50 miles (264,000 feet) above the Earth are designated as astronauts (the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale considers those who fly above 62 miles (327,000 feet) to be astronauts). Virgin Galactic will award passengers astronaut wings after their flight, and the Federal Aviation Administration may give them astronaut badges as well.