Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity could be just months away from 1st space flight
Following a successful second supersonic test flight of the Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft could be on the verge of becoming the first privately funded spacecraft to carry humans into space since SpaceShipOne some 14 years ago.
SpaceShipOne made its final flight in October of 2004 after winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for repeated flights of a privately developed reusable suborbital spacecraft. The design of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is based on SpaceShipOne.
On May 29, 2018, just 54 days after completing the first successful supersonic flight of VSS Unity, the spacecraft was attached to its mother ship, VMS Eve, and taken to its launch point 46,500 feet (14,200 meters) above the Mohave Desert where it was released. Pilots Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky then fired the spacecraft’s single engine and headed aloft. Burning its unique fuel mix of HTPB, a rubber based solid fuel, and nitrous oxide, the spacecraft soared to an altitude of approximately 114,500 feet and reached a new top speed of Mach 1.9.
The crew then deployed the spacecraft’s unique feathering system to slow it down during reentry and then reconfigured the spacecraft to an aircraft like configuration to land back at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” Branson, who was at the spaceport to watch the flight, said afterward in a company news release. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”
The vehicle flew this last time with a complete set of six passenger seats and the related equipment needed to carry passengers. This changed the center of gravity of the spacecraft as compared to the prior flight, making it closer to where it would be for actual passenger carrying flights.
“The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth,” Branson said.
Getting to this point has not been an easy task for Virgin Galactic, many production delays have been encountered along the devastating crash of the first SpaceshipTwo spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, which killed pilot Michael Alsbury during a test flight.
A ride aboard VSS Unity or one of its two sister ships currently under construction will not come cheap, at least not initially, with flights costing around $250,000 each. Even at that price the waiting list is already at over 700 people and still growing and, according to Branson, the first passenger flights could happen very soon. In an interview with CNBC he said “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth.”
Branson indicated there would be at least two or three more test flights before the spacecraft actually reaches space, or at least the edge of space. The internationally recognized boundary of space—the Karman line—is 330,000 feet (62 miles or 100 kilometers).
According to Branson, once the spacecraft is put through its paces and safely goes into space a few times, the company is expected to move operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico and start ferrying paying passengers on suborbital flights soon afterward.
Video courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.