Virgin Galactic Prepares to Resume Powered Test Flights

Jul 11, 2017

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It’s an exciting time to be a fan of aviation, as we’re currently standing at the doorstep of two significant breakthroughs for passenger travel — the return of supersonic flight and commercial space tourism. The former is being worked on by Colorado’s Boom Aerospace, while Virgin Galactic aims to take paying passengers on short flights to the edge of space.

For the first time since a tragic mid-flight break-up and crash in 2014, Virgin Galactic is set to resume powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The company has built a second SpaceShipTwo, which has been slightly modified and improved with new safety functions. Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the flights will begin “later this fall.”

In the 2014 crash, co-pilot Michael Alsbury unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s re-entry “feathering” system too early during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert, according to cockpit video and findings from the National Transportation Safety Board. The purpose of the feathering system is to pivot the vehicle’s twin tail booms up over the fuselage, providing more surface area and a capsule-like shape for a slower, safer plunge through the atmosphere. Because Alsbury engaged the feather while the plane was still accelerating under rocket power, the force caused SpaceShipTwo to break up during the flight. Alsbury died in the incident, while fellow test pilot Peter Siebold was able to eject and survived, though he was seriously injured. The NTSB said pilot error and improper training were to blame for the incident.

Virgin Spaceship Unity, attached to Virgin Mothership Eve.
Virgin Spaceship Unity, attached to Virgin Mothership Eve.

Powered tests will take place at the rate of about one per week, assuming all goes well. The flights will eventually reach higher and higher altitudes, until they reach the edge of space. Successful tests of the feathering system of the replacement spacecraft, VSS Unity, have already taken place.

Dozens have fronted $250,000 for the promise of being flown to the edge of space, including Steven Hawking and Ashton Kutcher. Both Branson and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides have said the company is hoping to begin flying passengers by the end of 2018 — nine years after originally planned. Coincidentally, if you’re feeling a more terrestrial need for speed, Virgin is also working with Boom to bring its supersonic plane into commercial service midway through the next decade. Virgin has rights to the first ten of Boom’s production aircraft.

All photos courtesy of Virgin Galactic, unless otherwise noted.

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