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Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

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NASA gets set to put astronauts on suborbital flights

Beth Moses
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, exults over the view out the window of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane during a suborbital spaceflight in February 2019. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signaled today that astronauts would soon be cleared to take suborbital spaceflights aboard the commercial rocket ships being tested by Virgin Galactic and by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“NASA is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft,” Bridenstine said in a tweet. “Whether it’s suborbital, orbital or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation’s innovative commercial capabilities.”

Bridenstine said the details will be laid out in a request for information to be released next week.

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A first: SpaceShipTwo flies free over New Mexico

For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flew free in the skies over New Mexico’s Spaceport America, its new base of operations.

The SpaceShipTwo plane, known as VSS Unity, has made rocket-powered flights beyond the 50-mile space milestone during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, but today’s unpowered test flight was the first to be flown from Spaceport America.

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Virgin Galactic resumes sales effort for space trips

New Mexico spaceport
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership arrive at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)

Virgin Galactic says it’s letting customers pay $1,000 refundable deposits toward suborbital trips on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, resuming spaceflight sales after a hiatus of more than a year.

In a news release, Virgin Galactic reported that 7,957 people have signed up on its website to register interest in such trips. Starting Feb. 26, all those people will be able to put their money where their interest is.

The company hasn’t yet set the price or the timetable for newly reserved trips under its “One Small Step” program. But based on past statements, the eventual price tag will be more than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic was charging before it suspended ticket sales in December 2018.

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Next SpaceShipTwo reaches factory milestone

VSS Unity and next SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane is parked to the left, and a SpaceShipTwo plane that’s under construction is at right. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

The rocket plane that’s due to become Virgin Galactic’s second commercial suborbital spaceship can now stand on its own two feet — or to be more precise, on its own landing gear.

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SpaceShipTwo carries three people for the first time

SpaceShipTwo Unity
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity touches down at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the first suborbital space test flight to have three people aboard. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic followed up on last December’s first SpaceShipTwo flight past the 50-mile space milestone by sending up its first non-pilot on today’s test flight.

The crew member who accompanied the two pilots was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor (and wife of the company’s president, Mike Moses).

Today’s test sent the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to a height of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), Virgin Galactic said.

The flight followed Virgin Galactic’s usual profile: Unity was slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. At an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released into the air and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a minute, screaming toward the black sky of space at a top speed of Mach 3.04.

After a zero-gravity coast at the top of the ride, Unity glided back to the airport for an airplane-like landing. Eve made its own landing minutes later.

It was Unity’s fifth supersonic test flight, setting the stage for what could be the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year.

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Virgin Galactic makes a deal for spacesuits

Kevin Plank and Richard Branson
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson share a moment with Nick Cienski, Under Armour’s lead spacesuit designer. (Under Armour Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, today took the wraps off a partnership with Under Armour to create the spacesuit and the footwear that he could well be wearing on a SpaceShipTwo suborbital space trip within a few months.

Under Armour will also create a performance training program for Virgin Galactic’s hundreds of customers — including the opportunity to train at Under Armour’s lab in Portland, Ore.

The actual apparel design and other details will have to wait for a future reveal. But Branson, ever the optimist, suggested that the kickoff for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space operation at Spaceport America in New Mexico is coming soon.

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Virgin Galactic plane takes 51-mile-high spaceflight

Virgin Galactic spaceflight
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, fires its hybrid rocket motor for a 51-mile-high flight. (MarsScientific.com / Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, has become the first privately funded vehicle in 14 years to carry people to the edge of space — depending on how you define space.

“I’m not allowed to say this, but hopefully we’re going to space today!” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said just after the flight took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port today.

Over the course of almost an hour, SpaceShipTwo and its White Knight Two mothership rose to a launch altitude of about 43,000 feet. Just before 8 a.m.. PT, the rocket plane was dropped from White Knight Two’s underbelly and lit up its own hybrid rocket motor.

The rocket blasted for 60 seconds, sending Unity upward at supersonic speeds as high as Mach 2.9 and powering test pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “CJ” Sturckow to a height of 271,268 feet. That translates to 51.4 miles, or 82.6 kilometers.

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Virgin Galactic aims for space — but how high?

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic is getting VSS Unity ready for a crucial series of test flights. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic says it’s beginning a series of SpaceShipTwo test flights that could cross the edge of the space frontier as early as Dec. 13 — amid a debate over where exactly that edge kicks in.

The company has been flight-testing its VSS Unity rocket plane for more than two years, with its most recent rocket-powered flight rising to a height of 32 miles (52 kilometers) in July. The plan for the next stage of testing at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port was laid out in a statement issued today.

“During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads and thermal heating,” Virgin Galactic said. “We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time. Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone.”

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SpaceShipTwo zooms through third supersonic flight

SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor during a supersonic test flight. (MarsScientific.com and Trumbull Studios via Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic sent its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to its highest-ever altitude today during its third powered test flight — setting the stage for a full-powered push across the boundary of outer space.

Unity was hooked beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane this morning for takeoff from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. About an hour into the flight, the rocket plane was dropped into the air and fired its single hybrid rocket motor, punching upward into the sky.

Virgin Galactic reported that the craft executed a 42-second rocket burn and hit a top speed of Mach 2.47. Maximum altitude was 170,800 feet (32 miles, or 52 kilometers). That’s higher than high-altitude balloons can fly, and more than halfway to outer space.

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