It’s been a long way back from a 2014 fatal accident for Virgin Galactic, the splashy starship company founded by Sir Richard Branson to take the masses into space. After the VSS Enterprise crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing copilot Michael Alsbury, the company had to redesign key safety systems and rebuild its spacecraft. It unveiled the VSS Unity in February.
Since then, Virgin Galactic has completed a series of ground tests and dockings with the ‘mothership’ aircraft Eve. After captive wear trials in September, the company conducted its first glide test on Saturday, when VSS Unity was released at an altitude of about 15 km. The spacecraft reached a speed of Mach 0.6 during its 10-minute descent back to the ground in California. It then made a safe landing at test facilities in Mojave.
According to the company, a preliminary review of the data and feedback from the two pilots, Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, indicates that Saturday’s flight went well. However, Virgin Galactic engineers will fully review the vehicle’s data and performance before paving the way for additional testing and eventual powered flight, likely sometime in 2017.
Prior to the catastrophic accident in 2014, the VSS Enterprise had completed 55 test flights, reaching a maximum altitude of 14 miles during powered missions. The VSS Unity shares the same basic airframe and propulsion systems as the Enterprise, but has a modified spring locking system, used to aid in the spacecraft’s descent. During the fatal flight on October 31, 2014, Alsbury deployed the system prematurely while still making a powered takeoff. Unity now includes a mechanical pin to prevent the spring lever from moving when the vehicle is flying in an unsafe flight regime.
Additional challenges await as Unity moves higher into Earth’s atmosphere during its testing program. When the spacecraft is making powered flights in the upper atmosphere, engineers will carefully observe how the vehicle’s rocket engine dissipates heat from the back of the spacecraft and how it behaves in breaking the sound barrier, both during ascent and descent . Company officials have said they will carry passengers – there will be room for six customers on a flight in addition to two crew members – only if they are confident they can do so safely.
In the two years since Virgin’s accident, the space tourism market has changed. One competitor, XCOR, has delayed development of its Lynx suborbital spacecraft. However, Blue Origin has made significant progress, flying its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft half a dozen times into suborbital space. Blue Origin says it is on track to begin offering private rides to space by 2018.
Frame image of Virgin Galactic