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Virgin Galactic prepares VSS Unity for first rocket powered flight test

Stephen Kuper

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has confirmed it will conduct a new rocket powered flight test for the companys VSS Unity, also carrying payloads as part of NASAs Flight Opportunities Program.

Virgin Galactic prepares VSS Unity for first rocket powered flight test
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This flight expects to fulfil a number of objectives, including testing elements of the customer cabin as well as assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilisers and flight controls during boost. The flight will also carry payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

The flight will be conducted by essential personnel only. No guests or media will be onsite, in accordance with company and state COVID-19 protocols. The operational footprint at the company's New Mexico facilities has been further minimised in the past two weeks, with only essential staff will be onsite to support the pre-flight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight.

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said, "With safety as our core priority, we remain committed to completing our first powered flight in New Mexico. In accordance with local government guidelines and safety protocols, we have minimised the number of people onsite to the greatest degree possible. While on this occasion no media or guests will be allowed onsite, our team will endeavour to capture and share the beautiful images with the world after the flight has been completed.

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"We look forward to completing this important milestone in our test flight program in the coming weeks."

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham added, "I’m grateful to Virgin Galactic, as I am to every business in our state, for their commitment to safety in this difficult time. This is an exciting announcement that demonstrates we have gotten back on track in a safe and speedy manner. New Mexico’s future on the cutting edge of aerospace development is brighter than ever."

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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Virgin Galactic’s current operational SpaceShipTwo was the first to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company and named VSS Unity by Professor Stephen Hawking during an unveiling ceremony in 2016.

SpaceShipTwo is a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry eight people (including two pilots) into space safely and with high frequency.

SpaceShipTwo is powered by a hybrid rocket motor – combining elements of solid rockets and liquid rocket engines. Both types of rocket engine have important advantages; the hybrid aims to combine the simplicity of a solid motor with the controllability of a liquid. SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor can be shut down quickly and safely at any point during the flight.

SpaceShipTwo’s most innovative feature is its unique capability to change its shape in space to ensure a repeatable safe re-entry. By rotating its wings and tail booms upwards while in space, the vehicle’s stability and rate of deceleration in descent is controlled by aerodynamic forces. This “feathering” design takes the best from both the traditional capsule and winged space vehicle designs, and adds a little magic of its own. The “feathering” concept is often compared to a badminton shuttlecock or birdie – and proves that sometimes the most disruptive designs can emerge from the most humble of origins.

SpaceShipTwo’s cabin has been designed to maximize safety, comfort and astronaut experience. Exposure to G-forces during SpaceShipTwo’s ascent and descent is safely and comfortably managed thanks our custom-designed, articulated seats. The cabin is exceptionally spacious, with an interior specifically designed to optimise the out-of-seat zero gravity experience for our astronauts.

For many Virgin Galactic astronauts, the trip to space will be defined by the views. For this reason, SpaceshipTwo has more windows than any other spacecraft in history, allowing each astronaut to look out into the cosmos and back to our beautiful planet below – with a new perspective in each direction.

With the exception of the rocket motor’s fuel and oxidiser, which must be replenished after each flight, SpaceShipTwo is a fully reusable spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic Holdings is a vertically integrated aerospace and space travel company, pioneering human spaceflight for private individuals and researchers, as well as a manufacturer of advanced air and space vehicles. It is developing a spaceflight system designed to offer customers a unique and transformative experience. 

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