Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.
Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.
Today’s outing followed up on two glide tests conducted in May and June of this year. All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.
Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.
During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.
“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.
A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back. Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.
Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.
The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.
Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”
Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.
“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.
All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.
Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be.
Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.
Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane’s engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.
George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made “great progress so far” on the concept.
“We are excited to complete the mission concept review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience,” Whitesides said in a news release.
The basic parameters of the design include a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating. The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.
The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market’s initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic’s share price in early trading today.
Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into “quiet-boom” technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).
NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59’s first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.
Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today’s announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.
If Virgin Galactic’s supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it’s cool-looking vaporware. Check out these renderings (all copyrighted by Virgin Galactic and used with permission):
Update for 2:30 p.m. PT Aug. 3: Virgin Galactic posted a second-quarter loss of $63 million with zero revenue today, sparking an after-hours drop in its share price. But that wasn’t the most significant news for space fans.
The company said it’s planning to conduct two powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane in New Mexico over the next few months. If those tests prove successful, Branson would get on board for a high-profile SpaceShipTwo flight in the first quarter of 2021.
Virgin Galactic also said it entered into deposit agreements with 12 customers for orbital spaceflights. In June, the company announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop a readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.
This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.
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.
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.
NASA says it’ll formulate a plan to assess the safety of suborbital spacecraft — such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane — so that astronauts, researchers and other space agency personnel can be cleared for takeoff.
The effort will be spearheaded by a suborbital crew office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been overseeing the development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft for orbital trips to and from the International Space Station.
Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.
Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”
Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.
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.
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.