One Vision: Virgin Galactic unveils ‘Unity’ to the world
MOJAVE AIR AND SPACEPORT, Calif. — With all the pomp that the public has come to expect from Virgin Galactic, the new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, has been revealed to the world. The new spacecraft was unveiled during a spectacular ceremony held on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. It marked a pivotal turning point for the space tourism company.
This event was, besides the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, one of the more public events for the company since the Oct. 31, 2014, accident that saw the V.S.S. Enterprise disintegrate in the skies above California. Today’s ceremony served to help the private space firm reignite their efforts to send customers to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic made no bones about the fact that they still have a way to go before customers can plunk down $200,000 and pick up a ticket to sub-orbit, issuing the following statement:
If you are expecting SpaceShipTwo to blast off and head straight to space on the day we unveil her, let us disillusion you now: this will be a ground-based celebration. Indeed, our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts. We already know these things work individually, but one can’t simply assume they will all work together – that must be tested and verified. We’ll do so quickly, but we won’t cut corners.
This policy was underscored by officials with Virgin Galactic, who noted that changes have been made to SpaceShipTwo’s design to help prevent a recurrence of the 2014 accident.
Virgin Galactic has stated that the new spacecraft would have to undergo captive carry, glide, and rocket-powered tests long before passengers ride her aloft. During captive carry, the new SpaceShipTwo won’t go anywhere. Rather, it will stay connected to WhiteKnightTwo. During these flights, the company will check how the two fit and work together before moving on to the next phase of testing.
For glide testing, SpaceShipTwo will be carried aloft, released and will be “flown” back to Earth. This will be more challenging than it sounds as SpaceShipTwo will be coming back from an altitude of some 9 miles (14 kilometers). This will serve to confirm the basic spacecraft’s basic aerodynamics before things heat up.
Then? As the “icy commander” Alan B. Shepard said, it will be time to “Light this candle!” Test pilots with VG will test out SS2’s rocket engine in flight. The crew-rated spacecraft will see the various aspects of its flight profile validated.
According to Virgin Galactic, each of its test flights will serve to push the vehicle’s design a little further and, in some cases, additional flights might be carried out to validate the design. The aerospace firm noted that the vehicle will be free of some 99 percent of the atmosphere when it passes the 19-mile (31-kilometer) threshold. This is the point where weightlessness will be experienced by the spacecraft’s pilots – and the azure blue of the sky will deepen to black.
At 50 miles (80 kilometers) – at least according to the U.S. Air Force and NASA – its pilots officially become astronauts. At 62 miles (100 kilometers), the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the rest of the world will also acknowledge their accomplishment.
VG has stated its plans to have the first “official” flight of SpaceShipTwo to be a scientific mission – with a complement of eight. A crew of this size has not been sent to space since the flight of Space Shuttle Challenger in October of 1985 on mission STS-61A.
For this announcement, some four generations of Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson’s were in attendance – denoting the importance of this event.
One other change was announced this evening. The prior test campaign was handled by the spacecraft’s manufacturer Scaled Composites. The new regimen will be handled by Virgin Galactic.
“Our safety program is our North Star, it guides everything that we do,” Moses said.
Matthew Kuhns is an aerospace engineer living in California and enjoys capturing the beauty of the aerospace world with his camera. As an engineer he specializes in fuel & propulsion systems and as a photographer his internationally award-winning images are published in magazines and books. Kuhns was introduced to the founder of SpaceFlight Insider during the pre launch activities for SpaceX’s CRS-4 mission and was promptly brought on to the team as SFI’s California photographer.