After completing four captive carry test flights, Virgin Galactic conducted the first-free flight drop test of its second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity. The test took place on Saturday, December 3rd over California’s Mojave Desert.
“Today, VSS Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, with pilots Mike Masucci and Todd Ericsson as well as flight test engineer Dustin Mosher in WhiteKnightTwo. Over the course of the 1 hour 20 minute flight–particularly the 10 minutes of free flight for SpaceShipTwo–our pilots, mission controllers, and ground crew collected valuable data.”
Virgin, which is years behind schedule in its ambitions to launch the suborbital space tourism industry, suffered the catastrophic loss of its first spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, on October 31st 2014 during a powered test flight. The cause of the accident which took the life of test co-pilot Michael Alsbury was traced to the pre-mature deployment of the craft’s unique hinged wing system. Under normal conditions, the system is deployed after the hybrid rocket motor has finished its burn, altering the craft’s configuration into a “shuttlecock” shape which greatly increases its drag, slowing the ship as it descends through the tenuous upper limits of the atmosphere. On that day however, video recordings show Alsbury activating the brake before the motor terminated thrust, with the result being a mid-air breakup.
Since then, the design has been modified to include a safety interlock, while the rest of the ship has now undergone a series of upgrades as well. Manufacturing has also shifted from Scaled Composites, which built the first SpaceShipTwo, to The Spaceship Company, a “sister organization” also owned by Richard Branson.
Over the coming months, Virgin Galactic will conduct an unspecified number of free-flight tests, estimated to be around 10, before beginning the much more challenging series of powered test flights. Only after that will the company finally be in a position to begin carrying tourists on brief, suborbital flights where they will enjoy several minutes of micr0-gravity in addition to the red carpet treatment for which the Virgin brand is famous.