Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic introduced the world to his shiny new space tourism rocket plane, the VSS Unity, on Friday at Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. Branson christened the gleaming winged machine, designed to comfortably accommodate six passengers and two pilots, to an assembled crowd of scientists, aerospace workers, invited media and even celebrities like Harrison Ford.
This new version of SpaceShipTwo appears identical to its ill-fated sister ship, with some refinements to the feather descent mechanism and further fortified with subtle efficiency and safety features. A new logo on the craft's bullet nose utilizes an image of Stephen Hawking's eye. Hawking is a huge proponent of private commercial spaceflight and includes himself as one of Virgin Galactic's lucky $250,000 paying customers.
“I never thought I would have the opportunity to see our beautiful planet from space, or gaze down into the infinity beyond,” Hawking said in a recorded message played at the ceremony. "But I had reckoned without the dream of another, a man with the vision and persistence to opening up spaceflight for ordinary Earthbound citizens.”
“So much of what he stands for resonates with what we at Virgin Galactic aspire to be,” Branson said. “This watching eye reminds us not only his part in our journey, but of the unique human experience that space provides."
The program to whisk paying tourists into the heavens suffered a tragic setback on Oct. 31, 2014, when its first SpaceShipTwo experienced an in-flight malfunction due to human error and crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing one of its pilots, Michael Alsbury.
Most of the project's future testing will be ground-based for a long period following last week's unveiling of the VSS Unity, concentrating on full-vehicle tests of her extensive electrical systems and moving parts. After that, their spacecraft will be gven a proper in-flight shakedown as described on Virgin Galactic's official site:
Once that is done, we’ll be eager to get air under the wings of our new spaceship. We’ll begin first with captive carry flight, during which SpaceShipTwo stays firmly mated to her mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Once that is completed, we’ll move to glide testing, where our new spaceship flies freely for the first time as a glider coming home from an altitude of 45,000+ feet (14 km) while our incredible pilots test out her handling.
After several glide flights have been completed and we are satisfied with the results, rocket-powered test flights are next. We will execute a thoughtful and steady progression of flights. Each mission will be designed to test something important: how the heat from the rocket motor dissipates in the rear of the vehicle, how the vehicle behaves when breaking the sound barrier on both ascent and descent, how closely our models of forces on the vehicle match reality.
Each flight will generally fly a little higher, a little faster, and sometimes we may need to repeat a test point to get additional data or confirm a result. When she first crosses 100,000 feet (31 km), SpaceShipTwo will already be above 99% of the atmosphere, and the pilots will experience true weightlessness while surrounded by a sky that has noticeably begun turning black. When she eventually reaches 50 miles (80 km), her pilots will have met NASA and the US Air Force’s requirements for official astronaut status, and they will be recognized by our team and by the US government as bonafide space travelers; when she crosses 62 miles (100 km) sometime later, they will also be recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
When we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so. We feel incredibly honored that our earliest paying customers already number more than the total number of humans who have ever been to space. Our first spaceflight with paying customers; our first flight full of research experiments; our first flight with a full complement of eight (a feat that has only been accomplished once before in all of history, by the Space Shuttle on mission STS-61A); the dozens of times we will fly the first ever astronaut from a given nation — each of these will be exciting milestones in the history of space exploration.
No one is more eager than us to complete those milestones—nor to share this journey, with all its challenges and triumphs, with a global public that craves inspiring and ambitious stories to balance out the daily barrage of the 24 hour news cycle. But this isn’t a race. We have shown we are committed to being thorough in our testing: it is the right thing to do and it is essential to our ultimate success. As a thousand year old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars. But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it.
Virgin Galactic officials are obviously playing on the far side of caution in this next crucial developmental phase, with increased scrutiny and expectations placed on privatized space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. No official date as to the exact schedule of testing has been released.
"As a thousand-year-old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars,” Virgin Galactic officials said. "But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it."
(Via USA Today)