Virgin Galactic Rolls Out New SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic Rolls Out New SpaceShipTwo

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic introduced its new SpaceShipTwo to the world yesterday, 16 months after a fatal accident that destroyed the first vehicle in the series.  This second vehicle, SS2-002, was christened Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity by Branson’s one-year old granddaughter with a bottle of milk.

SpaceShipTwo is an air-launched spaceplane.  It is carried aloft by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude where it fires its own rocket engines to reach an altitude of at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space.  After about six minutes in weightlessness, it returns to land on Earth.  The company’s goal is to fly passengers on suborbital flights. The current price is $250,000 per passenger.  The vehicle is designed to carry two pilots and up to six passengers.

Richard Branson (right), granddaughter Eva-Deia (celebrating her first birthday), and her parents Sam and Isabella,
christen Virgin Space Ship (VSS) “Unity.” Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity on tarmac at Mojave, CA, February 19, 2016.  Photo Credit:  Virgin Galactic

The October 31, 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo (SS2-001) killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.   The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation determined that during ascent Alsbury prematurely moved a lever that deployed a feathering system meant to slow the spaceplane during descent.  Aerodynamic forces pulled the spaceplane apart.  It was not equipped with ejection seats, but Siebold managed to separate from his seat and his parachute deployed.  He landed injured, but alive.  Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground.  SpaceShipTwo was developed by Scaled Composites (part of Northrop Grumman), which was in charge of the test flight and both pilots were Scaled employees.

VSS Unity and future vehicles in the series are built by Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company, whose facilities are at the Mojave Air and Space Port
in Mojave, CA.  Commercial flights will take place from Spaceport
America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in January 2015 that the company would persevere and that structural fabrication of this second vehicle was 90 percent complete at the time as well as two-thirds of the systems.   He was optimistic that test flights would resume in 2015 and commercial flights would begin in 2016.  Test flights were delayed until now and no schedule for commercial flights was announced yesterday.

The NTSB not only identified Alsbury’s premature unlocking of the feathering system as the probable cause from a technical standpoint, but faulted Scaled Composites’ “failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard” to the vehicle.  That failure “set the stage” for Alsbury’s “premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced…”

VSS Unity’s roll-out yesterday marked the beginning of its testing “as a complete vehicle,” according to Doug Shane, President of The Spaceship Company.   He said that “hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of Mike [Alsbury] and of his family.  I know that he believed in this mission and this technology and in this vehicle design.  And we have made this a safer and better system because making a safer and better system was what Mike was all about.”

The ceremony yesterday included a message from renowned physicist
Stephen Hawking.  Branson credited Hawking with coming up with the name


User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.