February 20, 2016 – Richard Branson yesterday unveiled Virgin Galactic’s much anticipated second SpaceShipTwo at a ceremony in Mojave, California, attended by his family, Virgin Galactic’s Founder Future Astronauts, stakeholders and partners.
The ceremony featured four generations of Sir Richard’s family, from his mother Eve, Richard himself, his son Sam, to his grandchild Eva Deia who celebrated her first birthday by christening the spaceship in the traditional way but with milk in place of champagne. The ceremony also included a video congratulations from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai emphasizing the importance of space to science and technical education.
Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity via a recorded speech and said, “I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”
The new SpaceShipTwo is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s wholly owned manufacturing arm, and is the second vehicle of its design ever constructed. VSS Unity featured a new silver and white livery and was guided into position by one of the company’s support Range Rovers, provided by its exclusive automotive partner, Land Rover.
Richard Branson said, “Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth. Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal also great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose.”
Virgin Galactic designed and developed SpaceShipTwo for space tourism. The space plane is made to carry two crew members and six passengers into the weightlessness of space. SpaceShipTwo will be ferried by a “mother” aircraft to roughly 10 miles in altitude before being released on a suborbital trajectory under its own rocket power, quickly reaching the edge of space at about 75 miles in altitude. More than 700 people have already signed up to take flights on the spacecraft once it begins launching from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Before that can happen, however, SpaceShipTwo will undergo a lengthy test phase which will begin on the ground and progress to glide testing and then to rocket-powered flight over Mojave.
SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor crashed during a flight test accident on October 31, 2014, injuring the pilot and killing the co-pilot. After a lengthy investigation, the National Transportation Safety board concluded that the accident was the result of pilot error – the crucial “feathering” system, which is used to slow the spacecraft down during re-entry, was engaged too early in the flight.
Branson said that the vehicle is similar to its predecessor and the company benefitted from, “incredibly useful data from 55 successful test flights as well as the brutal but important lessons from one tragic flight test accident.”
Once the company is confident that it can safely carry customers to space, it will start doing so. In addition to carrying up to eight passengers, SpaceShipTwo will carry a variety of technology experiments that could prove useful to NASA and other agencies for future space exploration missions.