SpaceShipThree (SS3) will be the next generation of commercial
spacecraft designed by Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic
if the spaceflights of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) are successful.
Whereas SpaceShipTwo is a
suborbital spacecraft, SpaceShipThree will be an orbital spacecraft
similar to the U. S. Space Shuttle.
SpaceShipThree will be built jointly by Burt Rutan of Scaled
Composites and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. The
advantage of a spacecraft such as SpaceShipThree will be that
it will be able to dock with the International Space Station
if desired or needed. This may become more relevant also after
NASA retires the space shuttles in 2010.
Although orbital flight is much more expensive than suborbital
spaceflight, some of the cost for the SpaceShipThree could
be offset by winning the $50 million America's Space Prize
sponsored by Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada.
In order to win the prize, though, SpaceShipThree will have
to beat out a couple of other competitors along with building
a craft that can go up 240 miles, make two orbits around the
earth and repeat the same feat within 60 days. This has to
be accomplished by January 10, 2010 in order to claim the
SpaceShipThree will be the first spacecraft in Scaled Composites'
Tier Two program as the other vehicles are a part of the Tier
One program. While SpaceShipOne
was the first private spacecraft to reach Mach 3, which is
required for suborbital spaceflight, SpaceShipThree will need
to be able to reach Mach 25 in order break the necessary barriers
and achieve the distances to start orbiting the earth. SpaceShipThree
will also need to be much more protected from the heat of
reentry than either of its two predecessors.
Testing of SpaceShipTwo is expected in the later part of
2007 or early 2008 with the first paying commercial spaceflights
starting in 2009. This give the builders of SpaceShipThree
some time to learn from the trials and errors of SpaceShipTwo
and apply the learnings to building a bigger and better mousetrap.