On Tuesday (May 29), Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, successfully launched the second powered test flight of VSS Unity, less than two months after the passenger spaceship took to the skies on its first test launch, reaching supersonic speeds before returning to base.
The SpaceShip Two-class spacecraft, which may someday carry paying passengers into space, took off on its second test mission attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, the VMS Eve, from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 11:40 am ET.
About an hour into the launch, VSS Unity separated from the jet-propelled mothership and ignited its hybrid rocket engine for 31 seconds, reaching an altitude of 114,500 feet (34,899 meters) at Mach 1.9, or 1,300 miles per hour, almost twice the speed of sound.
“The focus of today’s flight was to expand our understanding of the spaceship’s supersonic handling characteristics and control system’s performance with vehicle parameters that were closer to the ultimate commercial configuration,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
“This involved shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward via the addition of passenger seats and related equipment.”
VSS Unity’s Tuesday apogee of 114,500 feet and a top speed of Mach 1.9 broke the record of the April 5 launch, which saw the spaceship reach 84,271feet at Mach 1.87, before returning back to base.
Unlike the first launch, this time around, Branson was there to personally witness the flight and sounded pretty much satisfied with the outcome.
“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,”
the English entrepreneur and philanthropist said in a statement. “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!”
While Tuesday’s launch happened within 54 days of the first test flight, the first powered-flight itself was attempted after a long gap of four years, following the disastrous disintegration of VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic’s previous SpaceShip Two-class spacecraft, in 2014.
A lot has changed since that fateful October day, which saw the VSS Enterprise break apart midflight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring flight commander Peter Siebold.
Investigations later revealed that a design glitch allowed Alsbury to prematurely unlock VSS Enterprise’s “feathering” descent system, losing the spacecraft and his life in the process.
What has not changed, though, are the basics of the company’s flight pattern, which involves a jet-powered WhiteKnightTwo class carrier plane (VMS Eve) taking off with the SpaceShipTwo craft (VSS Unity) and dropping it from an altitude of 45,000, after which the spacecraft fires up its rocket-powered engines, accelerating to top speed on its way to its apogee, before gliding back to base to land like any other conventional aircraft.
In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, Branson said that he was looking forward to traveling aboard the VSS Unity himself, in a year’s time, possibly, and was undergoing physical training in preparation for the trip.
“I think over the next 12 months I hope to become an astronaut, and I think we’ve got a very exciting time ahead,” he said.
During the course of the interview, Branson acknowledged that Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin – which has successfully launched its New Shephard rockets on several test missions, the last one as recently as April 29 – was, indeed, a competitor.
“I think we’re both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first, and I think we’re talking about months away, not years away, so it’s close,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ve got to do it in a safe way. I think both of us will have people into space within 12 months.”
While Virgin Galactic started booking commercial passengers for its space tourism flights more than a decade ago, Blue Origin is yet to decide on a ticket price, leave alone selling tickets in advance.
“We don’t know the ticket price yet. We haven’t decided,” Bezos said at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles, last week.
Without giving a timeframe for starting the passenger flights, Bezos said that he was looking forward to flying the New Shepard as frequently as possible while continuing to test the rocket’s BE-3 engine, as the company plans to use the same engine to power the upper stage of its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle.
According to company representatives, VSS Unity, which was under the command of pilots Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky on its second test flight, could begin carrying commercial passengers as early as this year, itself, if things proceed as smoothly as they did on Tuesday.
Each ticket aboard the SpaceShipTwo-class spacecraft will cost $250,000, in return for which passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness on their way to the edge of space where they’ll witness Earth’s awe-inspiring curvature against the black backdrop of a limitless space.
However, VSS Unity flights will not be limited to tourism only, but will also undertake different scientific and experimental missions.
“Today we saw VSS Unity in her natural environment, flying fast under rocket power and with a nose pointing firmly towards the black sky of space,” Branson said.
“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,” he added.
The Tuesday flight was the sixth powered test flight of the SpaceShip Two-class space vehicle, overall, and the second since the tragic crash of VSS Enterprise in 2014.
Once bitten, twice shy would be an understatement, considering the rigorous and extensive engine testing as well as seven glide tests that the VSS Unity was put through before the company declared it flight-worthy.
While the original SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Enterprise, was developed by Scaled Composites, the VSS Unity has been built by The Spaceship Company – a Virgin Group subsidiary – which made a number of necessary changes to the spaceship’s design to avoid a repeat of the 2014 tragedy.