Spaceflight Insider

Stephen Hawking to help roll out, christen SpaceShipTwo No. 2

SpaceShipTwo in flight Scaled Composites image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is almost back to conducting test flights again. SpaceShipTwo (SS2) Tail No. 2 will be unveiled at a special event held at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, this according to a report appearing on GeekWire. The debut is scheduled for Feb. 19, with several Virgin Galactic VIPs and the company’s founder Richard Branson scheduled to attend.

Stephen Hawking, the only person, to date, to receive a free ticket for a flight on SpaceShipTwo, has not only been invited to attend the rollout of the new spacecraft but also the noted theoretical physicist and cosmologist has been asked to name the new spacecraft as well.

In an interview with the British newspaper Independent, Branson confirmed the request, “Obviously, we had a year’s delay after the accident and it’s tremendous that Stephen Hawking has agreed to come and name the new spaceship. He has made it very clear that he thinks mankind and womankind need to work very hard to try to colonize other planets and that space is very important for people back here on Earth.”

Feathered Flight during SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on 10 January 2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system. More infomation on MARS Scientific and the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System can be found at: www.MarsScientific.com

Virgin Galactic has worked to return SpaceShipTwo to test runs since the Oct. 2014 accident which cost the life of one of the two pilots on board. Photo Credit: Mars Scientific / Clay Center Observatory

Hawking, 73, suffers from a rare form of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and is confined to a wheelchair. His physical movements are extremely limited due to the paralysis imposed by the disease. He also suffers from bouts of pneumonia which limits his travel opportunities.

At a recent meeting of Virgin Galactic customers at Cambridge University, Hawking said, “I found myself with what I understand is the only free ticket for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight that Richard has ever handed out… and knowing Richard a little, I can believe that’s true.”

Despite his physical limitations, Hawking has been a strong space advocate, having participated in a zero-gravity flight nine years ago. “It was amazing,” the physicist said after his trip skyward. He has continued to press for the development of space colonies so as to maximize human survivability should a cataclysmic event occur on Earth.

The second SS2 underwent extensive modifications to the feather deployment system during its construction. The changes were put in place after the first SS2, the VSS Enterprise, broke up above the Mojave desert over one year ago. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the FAA, that incident was a result of pilot error mixed with the lack of safety systems. Further complicating the accident was the lack of proper training and lax safety standards.

The feather recovery system was inadvertently activated during a test flight in October of 2014 while the spacecraft’s thermoplastic polyamide (at that time, the fuel has since been switched back to hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene or “HTPB”) fueled engine was active.

The aerodynamic pressure forced the wings to deploy prematurely resulting in the spacecraft breaking apart more than 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above the desert floor. While pilot Pete Siebold survived the destruction of the vehicle, he sustained serious injuries. His co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed in the incident.

Nearly 700 customers have already signed up for the $250,000 suborbital tourist flights. Virgin Galactic has stated that commercial operations will begin, but only after SpaceShipTwo has passed all the required test flights.

Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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