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Virgin Galactic prepares for first flight of SpaceShip Two

Stephen Kuper

Virgin Galactic is preparing for the first spaceflight from its operational base at Spaceport America in New Mexico, which will occur later in the northern hemisphere autumn – the flight will be crewed by two pilots and will carry several research payloads in the cabin of VSS Unity.

Virgin Galactic prepares for first flight of SpaceShip Two
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One of the steps along the path to be ready for a spaceflight is to ensure that Virgin’s pilots are well prepared for the flight test objectives that they are about to conduct. 

A significant amount of training occurs in the company’s ground-based simulator, both with the pilots on their own, as well as in sessions that are linked to the mission control room. 

Virgin Galactic also has another powerful training tool for the pilots – the company’s mothership vehicle, VMS Eve.

Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, Dave Mackay, explains, “VMS Eve has the ability to test pilot proficiency by simulating the glide and approach-to-land phase of flight for SpaceShipTwo pilots. The cockpit structure of Eve is almost identical to that of Unity: the same pilot seats and windows, as well as very similar flight controls and instruments.”

Preparing VSS Unity for flight also includes a “practice run” for the spaceship, as well as the pilots and teams in mission control.

The company put Unity through its paces on the ground, testing all systems prior to flight to ensure functionality – including raising the feather, swinging the landing gear, firing the reaction control thrusters, and sweeping the flight control systems through full range of motion. 

“This, coupled with the fact that with Eve’s landing gear down, and one set of speed brakes out, it descends on the same flight path angle as SpaceShipTwo, means that the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window,” McKay added.

Pre-flight vehicle checks are designed to functionally verify that all systems are working as they should be, prior to the take-off.

With this flight being the first spaceflight from its home at Spaceport America, Virgin has planned a full rehearsal of its spaceship propellant loading procedures.

McKay added, “This makes Eve a very valuable in-flight simulator for the spaceship’s final approach and landing phases.”

During this rehearsal, it will perform a full tanking test, loading high-pressure helium and nitrous oxide into their respective spaceship tanks on-board VSS Unity.

This rehearsal will give the teams the opportunity to review the end to end execution of every step in the flight process at Spaceport.

Virgin Galactic said it is excited to announce that this upcoming spaceflight will be carrying research payloads in the cabin, as it had done on its previous spaceflights. For this flight, the company will have three payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program

Consistent with how Virgin Galactic conducted VSS Unity glide flights earlier this year at Spaceport America, all operations are following a set of stringent operational protocols that include changes to the work areas and procedures to enforce social distancing and universal mask usage, as advised by state guidelines.

Virgin Galactic expected the first spaceflight from Spaceport America to occur later this fall, and the company confirmed that it is still on track to meet this time frame.

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