by Douglas Messier
Four years after it was first rolled out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity left the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Thursday for its new home at in New Mexico, where it will undergo final flight testing and preparation for commercial suborbital space flights.
VSS Unity’s flight to Spaceport America aboard the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mother ship came just under a year after its second suborbital flight. Engineers in Mojave spent that time outfitting the spacecraft’s cabin with four passenger seats and implementing a weight optimization program to improve performance.
Virgin Chairman Richard Branson will be aboard the first commercial flight. The company is planning to conduct the flight on or before the billionaire’s 70th birthday on July 18.
In a press release, Virgin Galactic described the work that needs to be done before that can happen.
The relocation of VSS Unity to Spaceport America enables the Company to engage in the final stages of its flight test program. This will begin with a number of initial captive carry and glide flights from the new operating base in New Mexico, allowing the spaceflight operations team to familiarize themselves with the airspace and ground control. Once these tests are complete, the team will carry out a number of rocket-powered test flights from Spaceport America to continue the evaluation of VSS Unity’s performance. During this phase, the final spaceship cabin and customer experience evaluations will also be concluded in preparation for the start of commercial spaceflight operations.
That is a lot of work. Whether they can complete it in time for Branson’s birthday is unclear. Given the program’s long history of unrealistic schedule predictions — Branson announced SpaceShipTwo in 2004, with commercial service set to start in 2007 or 2008 — that date might slide past as well.
The company has said it has 603 customers signed up who have paid either $200,000 or $250,000 apiece for their tickets. Prices were raised in 2013 following the program’s first powered flight test in Mojave.
Ticket sales were suspended after the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke up in flight on Oct. 31, 2014. Virgin Galactic said it will raise prices again when it restarts ticket sales following Branson’s flight.
There have been nine powered flight in the program’s history. VSS Unity has conducted five of those flights, including two that flew above the 50-mile (80.4 km) altitude that is considered the boundary of space by the United States. Other nations use the Karman line at 100 km (62.1 miles) as the point at which space begins.
VSS Enterprise was lost on its fourth powered flight in 2014. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured in the accident.
Alsbury was the fourth person to die working on the SpaceShipTwo program. Three engineers — Todd Ivens, Glenn May and Eric Blackwell — died in a test stand explosion in 2007. All four men worked for Scaled Composites, the company that developed the spacecraft and its mother ship.
Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction in Mojave. Virgin Galactic’s fleet will include five spacecraft and two carrier aircraft. VMS Eve, which first flew in 2008, is the only WhiteKnightTwo built so far.