Virgin Galactic announced in a press release Thursday that they are unveiling their latest space ship, SpaceShipTwo.
2014 saw a tragic setback for the commercial space race when Virgin Galactic lost one of its ships. A pilot error in the original SpaceShipTwo ended in the death of the copilot and the miraculous escape and survival of the pilot, who fell over ten miles back to Earth. Since then, Galactic has put their physical efforts on hold in order to correct and prevent further loss of life as they move forward in flight tests. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic has made it his personal mission to make quality control a priority. Now, we shall see how Virgin will succeed in future tests and if their new protocols will get commercial passengers in space.
The release by Virgin Galactic states repeatedly not just how safe their new design is, but how thoroughly they plan to test, retest, and scrutinize every facet of the design to make sure every individual mechanism is working well with all the others.
“We [Virgin Galactic] are not starting from scratch even in that respect. Because our new vehicle is so similar to its predecessor, we benefit from incredibly useful data from 55 successful test flights as well as the brutal but important lessons from one tragic flight test accident.”
Virgin Galactic and Branson himself have taken the events of 2014 to heart and have not flown since the accident.
“If you are expecting SpaceShipTwo to blast off and head straight to space on the day we unveil her, let us disillusion you now: this will be a ground-based celebration. Indeed, our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts. We already know these things work individually, but one can’t simply assume they will all work together—that must be tested and verified. We’ll do so quickly, but we won’t cut corners.”
Virgin Galactic did confirm that the original SpaceShipTwo crash was caused by pilot error. The feather inhibitors, a component critical to re-entry into the atmosphere, was prematurely unlocked.
“The actual accident itself was caused by a control being moved when it shouldn’t have,” said Dave Mackay, the chief pilot for Galactic, to CNN.
So far, Virgin Galactic has sold 700 tickets to space with a $250,000 price tag up front. Although it isn’t uncommon for pilots to survive crashes at near-space altitudes, the outcome for a commercial disaster is uncertain. In reality, the company is protecting pacing themselves in the best interests of their employees, investors, and potential passengers.
SpaceShipTwo doesn’t simply take off and land like an airplane, although it resembles one and has been called a “space plane.” In fact, it requires the help of launching craft which blasts the passenger craft out Earth’s atmosphere due to the shear upward velocity needed to break into orbit. The mothership that carries SpaceShipTwo is known as WhiteKnightTwo. Once the craft reaches an altitude of 50 miles, the Virgin pilots on board are officially astronauts by NASA standards.
Virgin Galactic’s long hiatus on the ground is over. In many ways, today’s space race can be compared to the growth of the aviation industry. CEOs and billionaires are again competing much like Howard Hughs and TWA in their dreams of flying machines, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX finding the most success in its unmanned reusable rockets. Virgin Galactic has an entirely different mission: to make space accessible to everybody. During a Virgin Galactic flight, passengers can expect unprecedented travel times, periods of weightlessness, and killer view of the Earth previously only available to astronauts.
It would appear that Virgin Galactic is not giving up.
[Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images]