The nascent suborbital space tourism industry suffered a major blow on October 31st, 2014, when Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise was lost in a mid-air breakup over the Mojave desert during a powered test flight. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and pilot Michael Siebold was badly injured. With the company already years behind schedule in the the debut of its widely publicized, star studded roster of flights, many wondered if the accident, which was traced to a premature deployment of its wing feathering system, would delay the effort beyond commercial viability.
On Friday, some sixteen months after the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson unveiled its replacement in an event at its Mojave, Ca. facility. The new ship, named VSS Unity, is expected to begin a gradual series of tests in the coming months, but the company was unwilling to speculate as to when actual service will begin. The VG press release is below.
Virgin Press Release:
Mojave, CA – February 19, 2016 – Virgin Galactic, the privately-funded space company owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, today unveiled its newly completed SpaceShipTwo. The rollout ceremony was attended by Sir Richard Branson and his family, Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronauts, and partners. Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity via a recorded speech and said, “I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”
The ceremony featured four generations of Sir Richard’s family, from his mother Eve, Richard himself, his son Sam, to his grandchild Eva Deia who celebrated her first birthday by “launching” the spaceship in the traditional way but with milk in place of bubbly. The ceremony also included a video congratulations from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai emphasizing the importance of space to science and technical education. Photos and speech transcripts can be found here: http://www.image.net/virgingalactic.
The new SpaceShipTwo is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s wholly owned manufacturing arm, and is the second vehicle of its design ever constructed. VSS Unity was unveiled in FAITH (Final Assembly Integration Test Hangar), the Mojavebased home of manufacturing and testing for Virgin Galactic’s human space flight program. VSS Unity featured a new silver and white livery and was guided into position by one of the company’s support Range Rovers, provided by its exclusive automotive partner Land Rover.
The new vehicle’s build process kicked off in 2012 with each component part undergoing rigorous testing before assembly. With VSS Unity now fully manufactured and unveiled, The Spaceship Company will undertake integrated systems verification, followed by ground and flight tests in Mojave and ground and air exercises at its future home in Spaceport America, New Mexico. The Spaceship Company has already started work on the next SpaceShipTwo.
Based on the smaller 2004 X-PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne designed by Burt Rutan, SpaceShipTwo is designed to take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to space. Virgin Galactic’s space flight experience features an air launch followed by a rocket-powered ascent at three and a half times the speed of sound, the silence of space, several minutes of out-of-seat weightlessness and multiple windowed views of our home planet.
Virgin Galactic’s budding commercial spaceline fleet now consists of the spaceship VSS Unity and two dedicated carrier aircraft—the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve for human spaceflight and the 747-400 Cosmic Girl for the LauncherOne small satellite launch service.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said, “Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth. Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal and will provide us with an unprecedented body of experience which will in turn lay the foundations for Virgin Galactic’s future. Her creation is also great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose.”
Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said, “We seek to open space to people from all walks of life, and today’s milestone is big step toward that goal. Outer space is the province of all humanity, and we think it is about time that all of humanity has a chance to explore it: not just pilots but also painters, not just engineers but also everyday explorers.”
The Spaceship Company President Doug Shane said, “Building a talented team for our assembly facility in Mojave is perhaps what I take the most pride in. As we developed and manufactured SpaceShipTwo, we also developed the end-to-end capability for vehicle design through delivery for this and future aerospace projects. We look forward to fulfilling our aim as The Spaceship Company with vehicles of the future for Virgin Galactic and the rest of the industry.”
Professor Stephen Hawking said, “A man with the vision and persistence to open up space flight for ordinary, earth-bound citizens, Richard Branson made it his mission to make space flight a reality for those intrepid enough to venture beyond the boundaries of the Earth’s atmosphere. I have had ALS for over fifty years now and while I have no fear of adventure, others do not always take the same view. If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship. Space exploration has already been a great unifier – we seem able to cooperate between nations in space in a way we can only envy on Earth. We are entering a new space age and I hope this will help to create a new unity