Virgin Galactic’s Unity makes successful test run
Virgin Galactic, the commercial space wing of Virgin Group, Ltd., has begun its recovery from a fatal in-flight accident, nearly two years ago, with the successful first test flight of its newest SpaceShipTwo class spaceplane, the Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity, on Thursday, September 8, above the Mojave Desert in California.
Conducting what is known as a captive-carry flight, the VSS Unity soared into the bright blue desert skies mated to its WhiteKnightTwo twin-fuselage mothership named the VMS Eve, piloted by Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson accompanied by flight test engineer Wes Persall. Test pilots Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay sat at Unity’s controls. The test flight was deemed a success and lasted 3 hours and 43 minutes.
Virgin Galactic reported on its official blog: “In this configuration, WhiteKnightTwo serves as a veritable ‘flying wind tunnel,’ allowing the highest fidelity method of testing airflow around SpaceShipTwo while simultaneously testing how the spaceship performs when exposed to the frigid temperatures found at today’s maximum altitude of 50,000 feet [15,000 meters] and above.”
Virgin Galactic further stated from its blog that the flight team will now be analyzing all the vital flight data from this important test. Future test flights will occur only when their analysis and inspection of Unity are complete and to the company’s satisfaction.
“Our first flight test was an emotional and fulfilling moment for our hardworking team, even as we recognize how much work we have yet to do,” said the blog author. “An incredible amount of research, discovery, and iteration has already gone into this program—starting with SpaceShipOne’s initial proof of concept and progressing through the flight test of VSS Enterprise, testing of the raw materials that were used to build our new spaceship, component testing, and most recently the Integrated Ground Vehicle Testing of VSS Unity. The data resulting from today’s flight test will be added to that prior work, helping us make our next flight tests even more efficient, effective, and safe.”
This test flight surprised most industry space watchers, as only the day before Virgin had made a brief announcement about the test in a press release with no specific launch date mentioned.
Virgin Galactic vitally needed this test mission to succeed to reinstate confidence in its commercial space business since the demise of its previous SpaceShipTwo vessel, the VSS Enterprise, which suffered a fatal accident during a test flight in October 2014.
The Enterprise – named after the famous starship in the Star Trek series – tore apart in midair during its 55th mission when a co-pilot prematurely deployed the spaceplane’s feathered drag system normally used during descent operations. Test pilot Michael Alsbury was killed while his co-pilot, Pete Siebold, was seriously injured. In its post-flight investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) put the accident blame on a ship design that should have prevented the pilot’s error (according to a report appearing on Inverse).
Virgin Galactic acknowledged in the press release that the previous missions of the VSS Enterprise had contributed greatly on their improvements to the construction of the VSS Unity, which was built by its manufacturing subsidiary, The SpaceShip Company, who are also in charge of development and testing. The VSS Enterprise had been built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites.
Once Virgin Galactic is satisfied with their new SpaceShipTwo after many further captive and free flight tests, the spaceplane will finally be declared ready to carry passengers, or space tourists, who will be expected to pay $250,000 each to fly up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth on suborbital jaunts. This altitude is considered where the realm of outer space begins by both NASA and the United States Air Force (USAF).
Virgin Galactic will be sending up its paying passengers and commercial payloads from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Already about 700 people have signed up to soar into the Final Frontier, including a number of celebrities. Their adventure will begin with their transportation to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) aboard SpaceShipTwo via carrier plane, then the spaceplane’s rocket motors will kick in and send them briefly to the edge of space. The spaceplane and its space travelers will then glide back to the spaceport.
About Virgin Galactic’s new phase of the goal towards a viable commercial space business, the company exclaims in their blog that they could not be more excited to move to their next stage of their spaceplane test program.
“After years of important in-factory testing, our engineering and operations team are eager to move out from our hangars and to start testing in the open skies,” according to the statement. “This journey to flight has been arduous but rewarding, and we can now move forward with the confidence that comes from knowing that every vehicle component, sub-system, and procedure has been tested and re-tested prior to these flights.”
Video courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.