Space Barnstormers

Barnstorming was a time-honored, early aviation activity that was linked to the early biplanes of the 1920s. Normally associated with flying stunts in a “flying circus”, barnstorming is credited with being one of the first major forms of aviation, next perhaps with flying airmail contracts.

The people who flew in these planes, which in most cases were still made of wood and cloth, took their lives in their own hands on a daily basis. There were no gauges, no fly-by-wire, hydraulics, computers or any of the modern stuff in aircraft now-a-days. Just a ‘stick’ and foot-rudder pedals.

And of course, a ‘dead-eye’ to keep the horizon.

Now as commercial spaceflight is knocking on the door of history, these very same qualities are implemented in the SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s premier craft that will take passengers to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not only that, the ship requires the pilots who will fly the craft, have the same qualities of those early airplane barnstormers:

…Like its smaller predecessor, the spaceplane will drop from a jet-powered mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the pilot—this time assisted by a copilot—will fire a hybrid rocket motor and pull back on a stick to pitch up for a 3- to 4-G, Mach 3-plus run out of the atmosphere, and then four or five minutes of weightless flight in space.That’s right, a stick. Like its predecessor, SpaceShipTwo will feature no computer controls, not even a fly-by-wire system. The pilot will have to wrestle the ship through its boost phase and possible off-center thrust (caused by a tendency for the rocket motor’s solid fuel to burn unevenly), using manual controls attached by rods and cables directly to the rudder and elevons. Those control surfaces will become immovable when the ship transitions through supersonic flight, at which point the pilot will have to keep the ship on course with electrically operated trim controls. Even those  will become increasingly ineffective as the air around the ship thins to nothingness, at which point only the reaction control system’s bottles of compressed air will enable the pilot to change the ship’s orientation. “It’s hard to fly,” Melvill said at a 2005 talk of piloting SpaceShipOne. “The airplane does take a little bit of fooling around with to keep it going straight. You’re working rudder pedals, you’re working stick, you’re working trim.” The spaceship’s all-carbon-fiber construction lacks the strength to survive sustained supersonic flight in the atmosphere, making the pitch-up maneuver mandatory. “If you did not make the turn and you kept flying level, it would come apart,” said Melvill. “The dynamic loads on the vehicle would be so high, it would crush like an eggshell.”

To stay on course, the pilot will rely on a screen displaying the ship’s trajectory superimposed on the ideal flight path. “Normally our display works very well, and you just keep the green circle around the red circle,” said Melvill. “But on one of my flights the display went out, and so I had to [resort] to looking out of the windows.” With help from mission control, this was not as difficult as it sounds, said Melvill, “because I was able to see the horizon out of the corners of my eyes through two of the side windows. By keeping these horizons equal, I was able to maintain vertical flight.”

After coasting through an apogee of 360,000 feet, well past the 62-mile Kármán line demarcating space, SpaceShipTwo will reenter the atmosphere. The ship’s hinged tail booms, devised by Rutan to swing upward while in space and to automatically right and slow the ship as it reenters, will leave the pilot with little to do but strain to stay conscious during the 6-G deceleration. After lowering the ship’s tail by pushing forward a lever located between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, the pilot will glide the spaceship back to a dead stick landing at the airport from which he had taken off some two and a half hours earlier.

(All emphasis is mine)

This sounds amazingly like old-time barmstorming, only with the twist that the passengers will be at the edge of space enjoying zero-g.

Oh yeah, that initial 6-gee descent thing too.

The pilots are required to take high-gee training before being certified to fly Virgin’s spaceship and the passengers also, only not so rigorous.

Will this 62 mile vertical joy-ride be the ticket to bring spaceflight to the masses?

I’ll be eagerly awaiting.

License to Thrill


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