Virgin Galactic returned to the skies last week in the Mojave desert, two years after a fatal crash that killed one of its pilots and destroyed its first spacecraft. While we’re still awaiting news of when the first commercial flights will begin, the company now seems to be back on track for the most part.
Last Thursday’s test saw SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, the successor to VSS Enterprise, taken into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Unity remained attached to its carrier aircraft the entire 3 hours and 43 minutes of flight time, known as a captive carry test, but the results will prove invaluable.
The company described the test as putting Unity in a “flying wind tunnel”, seeing how the spaceship performed while in the air at an altitude of around 15,000 meters (50,000 feet). The prolonged flight time, much longer than Unity will stay in the air once commercial flights begin, also provided data on how it will cope with the low temperatures of the upper atmosphere.
“With this flight in the books, our team will now analyze a mountain of flight data, learning what worked well and what could be improved for our next flight test,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement. “Only when that analysis is done, along with detailed vehicle inspections, some already-planned work, and potentially more captive carry flights, will we be ready to move into the next phase of test flight.”
During the flight, two pilots remained in the “mothership” VMS Eve – Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson – while pilots Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay traveled in VSS Unity, along with flight test engineer Wes Persall. The flight passed without a hitch, with VMS Eve taking off and returning to a runway with VSS Unity attached. When proper flights begin, both vehicles will take off together but land separately.
It’s not clear yet when the next phase of testing will begin, though. Enterprise, before it was lost in October 2014 along with co-pilot Michael Alsbury due to a flight error, had flown freely with its rocket motor turned on. Unity, built around the same design, will have to go through similar testing before crewed flights can begin.
More than 600 people have bought tickets (first priced at $200,000, now at $250,000 each) to fly on short six-minute hops into space aboard the eight-seater vehicle, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. It’s been more than a decade since Virgin Galactic first came onto the scene, and these flights are yet to materialize. But that the company is now back on its feet suggests we may see the first paying customers fly in the next few years.