VSS Unity conducts first powered flight
The SpaceShip Company, using its VSS Unity spacecraft, successfully completed the vehicle’s first supersonic, rocket-powered test flight on Thursday, April 5. Piloted by Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay, today’s flight marked the first flight since the October 31, 2014 accident that saw the loss of the VSS Enterprise.
The VMS Eve crew consisted of pilots Mike “Sooch” Masucci and Nicola Pecile, who piloted the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft which ferried VSS Unity test article aloft.
This morning’s flight follows “two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing” and helps to kick off the final part of Unity’s planned test regimen.
Unity was described in a statement appearing on Virgin Galactic’s website as being, “built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by The Spaceship Company’s talented team of aerospace engineers and technicians.”
VMS Eve, with its precious cargo slung underneath, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 8:02 a.m. PST and carried out today’s test flight so as to validate an array of the spacecraft’s capabilities which included, but was not limited to, “rocket burn duration, speed and altitude achieved.”
The two vehicles climbed to an altitude of some 46,500 feet (14,173 meters) above the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Around this point, while pointing back toward Mojave, Eve released Unity and the main act of the day’s mission got underway.
Once clear, the hybrid (nitrous oxide / HTPB compound) rocket motor on Unity roared to life – propelling the craft to Mach 1.87 during its 30 second burn. Unity’s pilots angled Unity into an 80 degree climb. In so doing they rode Unity through the transonic range and into supersonic flight – for the first time.
Even after its rocket engine had cut off, Unity continued to coast upwards, reaching an estimated apogee of some 84,271 feet (25,685 meters). The crew then raised Unity’s tail booms to a 60 degree angle to that of the fuselage – the so-called ‘feathered’ configuration.
It was the premature activation of this feature which doomed the VSS Enterprise back in 2014. Additional safety features have been added to help ensure that a repeat of that accident is unlikely to take place.
The ability to feather its wings allows the SpaceShipTwo family of vehicles conduct repeatable reentries of Earth’s atmosphere.
At approximately 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), the tail-booms were lowered again. The duo also jettisoned the oxidizer that remained on board. Shortly thereafter, Unity was directed towards the glide home, which concluded with a smooth landing back at Mojave.
“The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing. It also marks a key moment for the test flight program, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns. While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead,” the company stated in a release issued after the flight.
Aerospace organizations from a nation away congratulated the NewSpace firm on its successful test flight.
“Space Florida congratulates Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic team on its return to flight, the first in nearly four years, from the Mojave Air and Space Port today. The Unity spacecraft’s successful launch, which reached supersonic heights, and landing marks a milestone in the company’s endeavor to send tourists to space. We applaud Virgin Galactic for its extensive work readying its spacecraft, and we look forward to its achievement within the commercial space and space tourism industry,” the State of Florida’s aerospace development branch stated.
Video courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.