Om 4 May 2011, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two completed its third test flight in twelve days, and this one was special. For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane deployed its twin tail sections in the position designed to allow it to softly return to the Earth’s atmosphere from the vacuum of space. Virgin Galactic noted:
After a 45 minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 feet, SS2 was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or “feathered” configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.
The feathered configuration is used during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere from the 100 km height obtained by the sub-orbital spaceship. The configuration is very stable during the free fall, which means the pilot has a hands-free re-entry. High drag combined with the light weight of the spacecraft means the skin temperature remains low.