New York? L.A.? Vegas? Cancun? How about a vacation that’s literally out of this world? That tag on your suitcase might soon say SPACE instead of LAX. Start planning some time off now, because Virgin Galactic (the commercial spacecraft spawn of Virgin Atlantic) has just gotten one step closer to blasting us non-astronauts beyond the stratosphere.
Spaceship and airplane hybrid VSS Unity will be ready for takeoff in the near future, when it embarks on its first glide flight test. Turbulent winds canceled a virgin voyage that was originally scheduled for the day after Halloween. The “spaceplane,” as Virgin Galactic calls it, will be flying solo after being launched with and then released from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, Eve. While it has fllown on the wings of Eve, Virgin is positive that Unity will be able to stay airborne on its own, with a successful glide test as proof. This will be the company’s second SpaceShipTwo model to take to the skies after a fatal crash took down its predecessor VSS Enterprise.
"Our first glide flight will be focused on testing the fundamental performance and handling qualities of VSS Unity," said Virgin Galactic reps in a statement that should get any potential sub-orbital tourists excited. "For this first test, we will keep the vehicle at a light weight and will place a 'speed limit' on the pilots (Mach 0.6). Once we analyze the results from this test, we will be cleared to go faster on subsequent tests." Can you imagine Mach anything as a speed limit?
Virgin Galactic is the brainchild of Virgin Atlantic founder and adrenaline junkie Richard Branson, whose entrepreneurial spirit apparently soars far beyond Earth. Branson is already known for his daredevil feats. The intrepid explorer has ventured to the edge of the atmosphere in hot-air balloons, trying to pull an Around the World in 80 Days, and even broken a world record for crossing the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle Jules Verne would have approved of. Now he wants to take those of us who didn’t go to space camp every summer on a tour de force 55,000 feet above our planet at 2,000 miles per hour—all for just $200,000 a ticket.
Virgin is ready to wing it and plans to reschedule the glide test, though no official date has been released (yet). The almost sci-fi VSS Unity has flown before, but always attached to its carrier spacecraft. When it does happen, WhiteKnightTwo Eve will rocket Unity out of the atmosphere and then release it to glide back to Earth. The spaceplane is expected to make astronomic advances if it sees a smooth landing. Test pilot CJ Sturckow believes Unity is ready to go where no Virgin Galactic craft has gone before in terms of being that much closer to sending the space tourism industry into orbit. He says Virgin’s space program is hoping to do a once-over on the glide test, to “spot-check the glide flight envelope and move quickly into powered flight testing.” Meaning, the program is approaching liftoff.
Imagine someday cruising on the highway and driving by what looks like an airport, only to realize that it launches VSS models instead of Boeing 787s. Bye, airplanes—spaceplanes are now a thing.