On February 19th, Virgin Galactic unveiled a new version of the SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Unity, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. This step marks the next progression in working towards travelling to galaxies far, far, away (though, for now, focussing on our immediate vicinity in space is probably enough).
(The VSS Unity. Source: Virgin Galactic)
However, before we get carried away, the company is yet to release the official date for the beginning of VSS Unity operations. Virgin Galactic has instead vowed to undertake rigorous testing of all aspects before allowing passengers - there will be room for six on each flight - to travel in space. This is not only the right thing to do, it is also vital in ensuring success. A statement released by the company said “when we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so".
Safety and the importance of testing has been very heavily stressed by Virgin Galactic - the company are keen not to repeat errors of the past and to build back some faith they may have lost due to them. The path towards ambitious goals is not perfect nor done on the first try, and their first accident to occur was around a decade ago when a rocket engine exploded - killing three people and injuring several others. 16 months ago, pilot Michael Alsbury sadly died during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo when it crashed into the Mojave Desert. After a nine-month investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in America, it was found that Alsbury prematurely deployed a feathering system to reduce speed and stabilise descent, causing the spacecraft to break apart. In the design for the new VSS Unity, therefore, the key change came in the form of the feather locking system; a mechanical pin is now included to prevent the feather lever from moving when the vehicle is flying in an unsafe flight path to do so.
So, what testing will take place to ensure the VSS Unity will someday take us to space? Ground testing is this first step, followed by integrated vehicle testing. VSS Unity is designed to be carried to 14 km by the jet aircraft White Knight Two, therefore pairing VSS Unity with White Knight Two will allow the next set of tests: glide testing and, finally, powered test flights. If these tests are successful, passenger flights can begin.
At 14km in flight, SpaceShipTwo will detach from White Knight Two and the rocket engines will fire for around a minute to allow it to reach its maximum altitude of just above 100km before descent back to Earth. Flights will be suborbital- essentially straight up and down- so passengers (700 currently signed up) will be able to see the curve of the Earth and the vacuum of space.
How much would it cost to see a slice of space and the future? The current ticket price is $250,000 so it doesn’t appear feasible for many people to afford to travel on the VSS Unity - the only person with a free ticket is Stephen Hawking. The renowned physicist helped to choose the name “VSS Unity” and someday plans to fly on it. With regards to this step toward space tourism, Hawking stated that “we are entering a new space age, and I hope this will help to create a new unity,” and that “taking more and more passengers out into space will enable them and us to look both outwards and back, but with a fresh perspective in both directions. It will help bring new meaning to our place on Earth and to our responsibilities as its stewards, and it will help us to recognize our place and our future in the cosmos”. This belief and idea was something that Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson believed resonated with what Virgin Galactic aspire to be.
Whilst the news of VSS Unity’s launch is bound to excite us and give us wide eyes of wonder as we look up at the sky, there is a long way to go before we can unleash our inner Hans Solo. Safety definitely comes first, therefore learning from the past will ensure space tourism becomes a reality.