Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft missions
SpaceShip Two is an air-launched suborbital rocket-powered crewed spaceplane type, designed for space tourism. It is manufactured by The Spaceship Company, a California-based company owned by Virgin Galactic. VSS Unity (Virgin Space Ship Unity, Registration: N202VG) is the second SpaceShipTwo to be built and will be used as part of the Virgin Galactic fleet. It first reached an altitude of more than 50 miles (80 km) on 13 December 2018. 1)
Figure 1: SpaceShipTwo "Unity" at rollout event on 19 February 2016 in Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar, Mojave, California, USA. VSS Unity (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
The manufacture of Unity began in 2012. The spacecraft's registration, N202VG, was filed in September 2014. As of early November 2014, the build of Unity was about 90 percent structurally complete, and 65 percent complete overall. As of April 2015, initial ground tests of Unity were projected to be able to begin as early as late 2015. On 21 May 2015, Unity reached the milestone of bearing the weight of the airframe on its own wheels. The spaceship was unveiled on 19 February 2016, as Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson had projected in November 2015; ground and flight testing commenced thereafter.
A new space plane 2)
Unlike traditional crewed rockets that launch from the ground, SpaceShipTwo launches from mid-air. A mothership called WhiteKnightTwo carries the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet (~12 km). SpaceShipTwo then drops from the bigger plane’s underbelly, ignites its rocket engine, and flies toward the edge of space at a steep incline, traveling roughly three and a half times the speed of sound.
Launching a rocket plane from mid-air might sound like a complex way to get humans into space. But “air-launch” comes with several advantages, says Chuck Rogers, a deputy branch chief at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. The technique has been explored over several decades of flight research, including the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, and the X-15, still the fastest piloted plane ever flown, topping out at 4,520 miles an hour during a 1967 flight.
Launching from mid-air can be highly efficient because the spacecraft doesn’t have to trudge through the dense lower atmosphere under its own power, meaning it can carry less fuel. And by using a space plane, the vehicle can take off and land at a long conventional runway, reducing the need for additional launchpad infrastructure.
Figure 2: Illustration of SpaceShip Two and former model SpaceShip One (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
Figure 3: Air-launch configuration of SpaceShip Two (center) being lifted to altitudes of ~ 12 km by the WightKnight Two carrier aircraft prior to release of SpaceShip Two (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
• October 14, 2021: Virgin Galactic will postpone a SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight that had been scheduled for this month, electing to instead immediately begin an extended maintenance period for the spaceplane and its carrier aircraft that will further delay the start of commercial flights. 3)
- The company said Oct. 14 that it decided to move directly intended a planned maintenance period after a recent lab test of materials used on the vehicles “flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints” that “requires further physical inspection.”
- “While this new lab test data has had no impact on the vehicles, our test flight protocols have clearly defined strength margins, and further analysis will assess whether any additional work is required to keep them at or above established levels,” Virgin Galactic stated. “Given the time required for this effort, the Company has determined the most efficient and expedient path to commercial service is to complete this work now in parallel with the planned enhancement program.”
- That decision means that the company will delay Unity 23, a mission for the Italian Air Force that had been scheduled for as soon as mid-October, until after the maintenance period is completed next year. That flight had been previously scheduled for late September or early October but postponed to look into a potential manufacturing defect with a component in a flight control actuation system.
- Virgin Galactic said this new issue is not related to that earlier investigation. The component under investigation was not on either SpaceShipTwo or the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, and the company “completed detailed inspections and scans which found all components met quality and safety standards and were ready for flight.”
- The Federal Aviation Administration also temporarily suspended Virgin Galactic’s launch license in early September while it investigated why SpaceShipTwo flew out of its assigned airspace during its previous flight in July. The FAA concluded that investigation and cleared SpaceShipTwo to fly Sept. 29.
- Those investigations delayed the start of the maintenance period, which Virgin Galactic announced in August, by a month. In August, the company said it expected to begin commercial flights late in the third quarter of 2022. It now expects those flights to begin in the fourth quarter of 2022, after the rescheduled Unity 23 flight.
- “The re-sequencing of our enhancement period and the Unity 23 flight underscores our safety-first procedures, provides the most efficient path to commercial service, and is the right approach for our business and our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in a company statement.
• September 29, 2021: The Federal Aviation Administration said Sept. 29 that it completed its investigation into a problem on Virgin Galactic’s most recent SpaceShipTwo flight, allowing the company to resume flights of the suborbital spaceplane. 4)
- The FAA said it determined SpaceShipTwo deviated from its assigned airspace on its flight July 11 that took six people, including company founder Richard Branson, to an altitude of more than 80 kilometers. The company also failed to communicate that deviation with the FAA.
- “The FAA required Virgin Galactic to implement changes on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe,” the FAA concluded in a brief statement. “Virgin Galactic has made the required changes and can return to flight operations.”
- Asked about those changes, an FAA spokesperson referred to a separate statement from Virgin Galactic. The company said its corrective changes include new calculations to expand the protected airspace during SpaceShipTwo flights. “Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions,” the company stated.
- Virgin Galactic also said that it would also make changes to its flight procedures “to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”
- “We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry,” Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”
- Neither the FAA nor Virgin Galactic elaborated on the issue during the July flight, known as “Unity 22” by the company, that triggered the investigation. The FAA announced the investigation Sept. 2, the day after an article in The New Yorker revealed that the vehicle’s pilots ignored an “entry glide cone” warning during its rocket-powered ascent, indicating that the vehicle was not climbing steeply enough. The warning meant that SpaceShipTwo was outside the volume of airspace where it could safely glide back to the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
- SpaceShipTwo did make it back to the runway without incident, and after the landing company officials didn’t mention that warning or any other problems with the flight. However, the vehicle flew outside of its designated airspace for a time during its descent, something the company acknowledged after The New Yorker article and blamed on high winds at upper altitudes.
- While the FAA investigation was in progress, Virgin Galactic said it was looking into a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the vehicle’s flight control actuation system. The issue, the company said at the time, was unrelated to the incident on the July flight that triggered the FAA investigation.
- Virgin Galactic said Sept. 10 it was postponing the next SpaceShipTwo flight, a research flight for the Italian Air Force called Unity 23, to no earlier than mid-October. The company didn’t update that schedule in its announcement about the end of the FAA investigation.
- Unity 23 will be the last SpaceShipTwo flight until at least the latter half of 2022. Virgin Galactic said in August that, after Unity 23, it would start extensive maintenance on both SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to allow both to fly more frequently. The company expects that commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo will not resume until late in the third quarter of 2022.
• September 12, 2021: Virgin Galactic is further delaying its next SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight in order to check a potential issue the company says is unrelated to an ongoing Federal Aviation Administration investigation. 5)
- In a statement issued late Sept. 10, Virgin Galactic said a third-party supplier, which it did not identify, notified the company of a potential manufacturing defect in a flight control actuation system component. Virgin said it is conducting inspections with the vendor to determine if the suspect component needs to be repaired or replaced.
Figure 4: Virgin Galactic says the inspections of a potentially faulty component will delay the next SpaceShipTwo flight to at least mid-October, assuming the FAA has completed its investigation of an unrelated issue by then (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
- Because of the inspections, Virgin Galactic said the earliest it would perform the next SpaceShipTwo mission, called Unity 23, is the middle of October. The company had previously stated the mission would take place in late September or early October.
- The issue, the company added, is not related to the incident on the previous SpaceShipTwo flight July 11. After a report that the vehicle had flown outside of its planned airspace during its glide back to the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico, the FAA said Sept. 2 that it would not allow SpaceShipTwo to fly again until it completed its investigation into the incident. The FAA offered no schedule for that review in its announcement.
- “We have a robust preflight readiness approach that is rooted in our thorough, proactive and safety-first culture. There is nothing more important to us than the integrity of our vehicles,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement about the delay. “Our test flight processes and procedures are rigorous and structured to identify and resolve these types of issues. We look forward to taking to the skies again soon.”
- The company has said little else about the FAA investigation or this issue. Company founder Richard Branson, appearing by video during a brief session of the Satellite 2021 conference Sept. 8, did not bring up the FAA investigation nor was he asked about it by the moderator.
- Branson was on the July 11 flight, which landed safely despite the airspace excursion. “I would love to go again,” he said in the only discussion of Virgin Galactic during the session, which focused primarily on Virgin Orbit. “It was more extraordinary than I ever imagined it would be. The day was just magical.”
- “Based on the waitlist we’ve got at Virgin Galactic, I suspect I’ll be in my 90s before I get a chance to go again,” the 71-year-old Branson said. The company had about 600 customers signed up before it announced plans in August to reopen ticket sales. “I’m telling them to hurry up and build as many rockets as they can. There’s so many people who would love to go to space.”
• July 1, 2021: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson will be on the company’s next flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle July 11, going to space days before fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. 6) 7)
Figure 5: Richard Branson will be "Astronaut 001" on the next SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight July 11, going to space days before Jeff Bezos flies on Blue Origin's New Shepard (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
- Virgin Galactic announced late July 1 that it had scheduled its next flight of SpaceShipTwo, called “Unity 22,” for July 11 at no earlier than 9 a.m. Eastern from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The flight will have pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci at the controls, both of whom have previously flown SpaceShipTwo beyond the 80-kilometer altitude the company considers the boundary of space.
- In the vehicle’s cabin will be Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla. They will test the vehicle’s cabin in preparation of future flights of tourists and researchers. It will be the first flight to space for all four but Moses, who was on a SpaceShipTwo flight in February 2019.
- Virgin Galactic previously stated that the next SpaceShipTwo test flight would carry four company personnel in the cabin, along with two pilots, to evaluate the cabin. That was to be followed by a second flight with Branson on board.
- However, a report last month suggested that Virgin Galactic was considering moving up Branson’s flight, performing it as soon as July 4. The company never formally commented on the report, and Branson, in comments as recently as June 30, declined to state when he expected to fly, citing Virgin Galactic’s status as a publicly traded company.
- Virgin said in its announcement that it will use Branson’s experience on the flight “to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers” based on his efforts in other Virgin Group companies, from airlines to hotels.
- “Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the statement.
- “It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality,” Branson said in the statement. “As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”
- The change in flight plans also is a game of one-upmanship with its rival, Blue Origin, and its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin announced May 5 its first New Shepard suborbital flight with people on board will take place July 20 from its test site in West Texas.
- On June 7, Blue Origin announced that its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, will be on that flight, along with his brother Mark. Earlier July 1, Blue Origin said Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who sought to be astronauts six decades ago, will also be on the flight. The fourth and final person, whose name has not yet been disclosed, is the winner of a June 12 auction, bidding $28 million for the seat.
- In a video Virgin Galactic posted to Twitter, Branson said he would make an announcement of some kind after the July 11 trip to the edge of space. “And when we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts,” he said.
- He didn’t elaborate on that, but company executives previously said that they expected to resume ticket sales, which had been on hold since the October 2014 crash of the first SpaceShipTwo, after Branson flew to space.
- Despite moving up Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic said they still expected to perform two more flights this year. One of those flights will be a revenue-generating flight for the Italian Air Force. It will then start full-scale commercial operations in 2022, after a maintenance period for both SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
• June 25, 2021: Virgin Galactic is now allowed to fly customers to space after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a Full Commercial Launch Licence. 8)
- Virgin Galactic has also announced that it has completed an extensive review of data gathered from its 22 May test flight and confirmed that the flight performed well against all flight objectives.
- With the data analysis from the May flight now complete, Virgin Galactic will continue preparing for the three test flights remaining before commercial service can begin.
- The adjustment to Virgin Galactic’s operator’s license, which the Company has held since 2016, marks the first time the FAA has licensed a spaceline to fly customers. It is further validation of the Company’s methodical testing program, which has met the verification and validation criteria required by the FAA.
- Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives. The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system. Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”
Figure 6: Start of SpaceShip Two spaceflight after being released from the WightKnight Two carrier aircraft at altitudes of >12 km (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
• May 20, 2021: Virgin Galactic will attempt its next SpaceShipTwo suborbital test flight as soon as May 22 after resolving concerns about the maintenance of its carrier aircraft. 9)
- The company said in a May 20 statement that the VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane will make a powered flight to the edge of space May 22, pending weather conditions and final technical checks, from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The flight, with two pilots on board, will carry research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
Figure 7: Virgin Galactic says the next SpaceShipTwo test flight is now scheduled for May 22 after resolving a potential maintenance issue with the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
- “Following a detailed inspection and thorough analysis of our mothership, Eve, we have cleared our spaceflight system for our upcoming flight,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the statement.
- The schedule for that flight was put in doubt May 10, when the company said in an earnings call that it found a maintenance issue with the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, called VMS Eve, that carries SpaceShipTwo aloft. The problem was found in checks after the plane flew a couple of flights in early May without SpaceShipTwo.
- During the earnings call, Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, described the problem as “a potential wear-and-tear issue as requiring further evaluation and analysis” of the plane. He later described it as a “family of items that relate to fatigue and long-term stress” but didn’t elaborate on the specific components being studied.
- In the new statement, Virgin Galactic described the issue as “a known maintenance item in the tail of the vehicle” that was scheduled to be handed during a maintenance period later this year. “This analysis has been completed with the company determining structures healthy, clearing Eve for flight,” the company said.
- During the earnings call, company officials said they were not sure if the problem needed to be fixed earlier. If so, it would have delayed upcoming SpaceShipTwo test flights, which have already suffered extensive delays.
- Virgin Galactic’s announced in February a schedule of four SpaceShipTwo flights this year, which it confirmed in the May 10 earnings call. After the upcoming flight with two pilots on board, the company will perform a second flight that will include two pilots as well as four company employees in the cabin, testing the seats and cabin features that will be used for later commercial flights.
- That will be followed by a third test flight with company founder Richard Branson on board. A fourth flight will be a commercial one for the Italian Air Force, carrying several Italian payload specialists doing microgravity research. The company said in the May 10 call that the Italian Air Force flight will generate $2 million in revenue for the company.
- Virgin Galactic did not offer specific schedules for the later flights beyond estimating they will be completed by this fall. Both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo will then go into a maintenance period lasting several months before being ready to begin commercial flights in early 2022.
- The May 22 flight will be the first since a powered test flight was aborted around the time of engine ignition in December. The company later blamed that abort on the reset of a computer system on the vehicle caused by electromagnetic interference (EMI) from a new flight control computer system.
- Moses said May 10 that engineers had worked to both install hardware filters to suppress the interference created by the computer as well as improving shielding on wire harnesses. That had reduced the EMI in lab tests by more than 90%.
- The last time SpaceShipTwo made a powered test flight was in February 2019 from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. During that test, the spaceplane’s right horizontal stabilizer, or h-stab, was damaged because of air pressure that built up in the composite structure after technicians mistakenly covered up ventilation holes with Kapton, an incident revealed in the new book Test Gods by Nicholas Schmidle. The company did not publicly discuss that incident at the time.
• March 22, 2021: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made its first flight to space in more than two years May 22, completing the first in a series of four suborbital flights planned by the company over the next several months. 10)
Figure 8: SpaceShipTwo is released from its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft during an earlier test flight. SpaceShipTwo flew to space May 22 on the first powered flight of the vehicle from New Mexico (image credit: Virgin Galactic)
- The SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity, with pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay on board, took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 10:34 a.m. Eastern, carried aloft by its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The plane released VSS Unity at 11:26 a.m. Eastern, at which time the spaceplane fired its hybrid rocket motor for approximately 60 seconds.
- VSS Unity ascended on a suborbital trajectory, achieving a peak altitude of 89.2 kilometers before gliding back to a runway landing at Spaceport America at 11:43 a.m. Eastern. The company did not webcast the flight, providing only updates via social media, although NASASpaceFlight.com did webcast the successful release and powered ascent of the vehicle. The flight, the first human launch to space from New Mexico, carried payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
- “Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement after the flight. “We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”
- “We hit it as near-perfect as you can in flight test,” Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety, said in an interview after the flight. The hybrid motor burned for the full duration and the vehicle reached its planned altitude, he said. “It was executed as near to the plan as you could hope for. It was a great flight.”
- This was the first SpaceShipTwo flight since one in December that was aborted just as the hybrid motor ignited. The plane glided back to a safe landing, and the company traced the problem to electromagnetic interference from a new flight computer system, an issue the company spent several months correcting. After addressing a potential maintenance issue with WhiteKnightTwo, the company confirmed plans for this test flight May 20.
- “It looks like that problem is mitigated,” Moses said. “From everything we saw today, there’s zero evidence of any effect of any of that. The motor performed fine and the other computer systems performed fine.”
- The flight was the first trip to space for SpaceShipTwo since a February 2019 flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. That flight carried three people to the edge of space, but also suffered damage to a horizontal stabilizer only recently revealed, prompting a safety review and a series of upgrades to the vehicle. Moses said one of the items the company was testing on this flight was the new horizontal stabilizer structure and control system.
- Virgin Galactic will perform what Moses described as a “very detailed physical inspection” of both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, while reviewing data from the flight. “That’s going to take us some time, and when we finish that step, we’ll look and see where we are timewise and set a date for the next flight,” he said. “But I would say that the early look is we’re on track to the plan we’ve of advertised in earnings calls.”
- This was the first of four SpaceShipTwo missions the company has scheduled for this year, a plan Virgin Galactic confirmed in its May 10 earnings call. The company expects on the next flight to carry four employees, along with the two pilots flying the vehicle, to test the passenger cabin and flight procedures that future customers will follow.
- That would be followed by a third flight with the company’s founder, Richard Branson, on board. That will still be considered a test flight, company executives said last fall when they announced those plans. “Who better to assess the experience of what we’re doing here?” Colglazier said then.
- A fourth flight is intended to be a fully commercial flight for the Italian Air Force, carrying payloads and several people. Virgin said in its May 10 earnings call that the flight will generate $2 million in revenue, or $500,000 per seat.
- The company hasn’t published a schedule for those upcoming flights, other than expecting them to be completed by the fall. Moses declined to estimate when the next test flight would take place, but that “nothing from today makes us think that that plan is not solid.”
- Both VSS Unity and the VMS Eve WhiteKnightTwo vehicle will then go into a “multi-month” maintenance period before beginning regular commercial operations, which Virgin Galactic now anticipates to be no sooner than early 2022.
- That schedule is far behind the company’s original schedule from 2004, which anticipated beginning commercial flights before 2010. Virgin Galactic suffered extensive development delays, as well as an October 2014 test flight accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
- As with the aborted test flight in December, Virgin Galactic did not invite media or many guests to Spaceport America to observe this test. The company said in December that pandemic-related restrictions prevented it from hosting guests at the spaceport. However, nearly all of the state has now moved to “turquoise” in a color-coded framework, the lowest level of risk that allows most businesses to nearly fully reopen.
- “Fifteen years ago, New Mexico embarked on a journey to create the world’s first commercial spaceport,” said Branson in the statement. “Today, we launched the first human spaceflight from that very same place, marking an important milestone for both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico.”
- “After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.
- Moses said that Lujan Grisham was in attendance at Spaceport America, along with former Gov. Bill Richardson, who was in office when the state agreed to build Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic. “So from a team perspective it was really fantastic to put this into the books, and from the New Mexican perspective, it was really great to put this one into the record books as the first of hopefully very many human spaceflights from the state of New Mexico.”
Passenger Flights of StarShip Two
• July 11, 2021: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and five other people flew to the edge of space on the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle July 11, the culmination of an effort that started nearly 17 years ago. 11)
Figure 9: SpaceShipTwo ignites its rocket motor seconds after release from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft July 11 from Spaceport America, New Mexico (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
- The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named VSS Unity (Virgin Space Ship Unity), took off from Spaceport America in the southern New Mexican desert at 10:40 a.m. EDT, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. Takeoff was delayed by 90 minutes because of weather overnight that slowed launch preparations. The vehicles flew to an altitude of about 13,700 meters before WhiteKnightTwo released Unity at 11:25 a.m. EDT.
- Unity then ignited its hybrid rocket motor for a burn lasting 60 seconds. The suborbital spaceplane flew to an altitude of 85.9 kilometers, then glided back to Earth, landing on the runway at the spaceport at 11:38 a.m. EDT to complete what the company called the “Unity 22” mission.
- The vehicle was piloted by Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, who previously flew on the second SpaceShipTwo flight to space in February 2019. Mackay also piloted Unity on its previous flight from Spaceport America May 22.
- For the first time, Virgin Galactic flew four people in the vehicle’s cabin in addition to the two pilots. Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at the company who flew with Mackay and Masucci in 2019, served as the test director for cabin activities. Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer at Virgin Galactic, evaluated cabin equipment and procedures. Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, evaluated the ability to do human-tended research by performing a plant experiment from the University of Florida arranged through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
- However, the person on the flight that attracted the most attention was Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, dubbed “Astronaut 001” by the company in promotional materials. Virgin Galactic’s previous plans were to fly Branson on the next SpaceShipTwo flight in the vehicle’s test program. However, the company announced July 1 that Branson would be part of this crew to “evaluate the private astronaut experience” that the company will offer to future customers.
- “As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin,” Branson said in the July 1 announcement of his flight.
- “Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the same statement.
Long journey to space
- In that same statement, Branson alluded to the long path to get to this flight. “After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry,” he said.
- Branson announced plans for Virgin Galactic in September 2004, agreeing to license technology developed by Scaled Composites for its SpaceShipOne suborbital vehicle, at the time on the cusp of winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize. At the time, Virgin projected beginning commercial service within a few years.
- Extended delays in the development of what became known as SpaceShipTwo repeatedly pushed out the start of commercial service, a process punctuated by tragedy. In 2007, three Scaled Composites employees were killed and three others injured during a test of the hybrid propulsion system the company was developing for SpaceShipTwo.
- In October 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke apart in flight when co-pilot Mike Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering mechanism that raises the vehicle’s twin booms for reentry. Alsbury died and pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.
- Virgin Galactic rolled out VSS Unity in February 2016 and, after a series of glide and powered test flights, finally reached the altitude the company considered space — 50 miles (80 kilometers), the point at which U.S. government agencies award astronaut wings — on a December 2018 flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company performed a second flight beyond 80 kilometers in February 2019 before doing additional work on the vehicle, including upgrades to a horizontal stabilizer that suffered damage in the February 2019 flight.
- Virgin Galactic shifted operations from Mojave to Spaceport America in early 2020. However, the first powered flight to space from the spaceport, in December, was aborted at engine ignition because of a computer reset. It took the company several months to complete modifications the vehicle’s electronics, which were successfully tested on the May 22 flight.
Figure 10: WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico July 11 on a flight to take six people, including Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, to the edge of space (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
Battle of the billionaires
- Branson’s decision to go on this flight rather than the later one as previously planned appeared to be a game of one-upmanship with Virgin’s rival, Blue Origin, and its own billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos.
- Blue Origin announced May 5 that, after 15 uncrewed tests of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, it would fly people for the first time on New Shepard on July 20. The company did not immediately disclose who would be on board beyond announcing an auction for one of the seats, with the proceeds going to Club for the Future, an educational nonprofit affiliated with Blue Origin.
- Bezos then announced June 7 that he would be on that first flight along with his brother Mark. On July 1, just hours before Virgin Galactic revealed that Branson would be on the upcoming SpaceShipTwo flight, Blue Origin said that the third person would be Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who underwent astronaut tests in the early 1960s but never given the opportunity to fly in space. Blue Origin has not yet disclosed the identity of the fourth person, who submitted the winning bid of $28 million for the seat in the auction that closed June 12.
- Branson’s decision to fly nine days before Bezos is the latest round in the rivalry between the two billionaires and their companies. On July 9, Blue Origin published an infographic that compared the two companies’ vehicles. It boasted of the “largest windows in space” on New Shepard compared to “airplane-sized windows” on SpaceShipTwo, as well as an escape system on New Shepard that SpaceShipTwo lacks and a “minimal” impact on the ozone layer.
- It also highlighted the differences in altitude the two vehicles reach. While SpaceShipTwo has not flown higher than about 90 kilometers, New Shepard routinely exceeds 100 kilometers on its flights, putting it above the 100-kilometer Kármán Line frequently used as one definition of space. Blue Origin called the Kármán Line the “internationally recognized boundary of space” although that boundary has no international legal significance.
- Blue Origin’s decision to publish that infographic two days before Branson’s flight struck many as petty. The argument is not new, though: in an interview in February 2019 Bezos warned that those who fly on SpaceShipTwo might not be considered astronauts. “We’ve always had as our mission that we always wanted to fly above the Kármán Line because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he said, comparing New Shepard with SpaceShipTwo. “And so that’s something they’re going to have to address in my opinion.
- ”Bezos and Blue Origin were more conciliatory in an Instagram post the day before the flight. “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” Bezos wrote. “Best of luck!”
• July 11, 2021: Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, hailed a successful test flight by the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane that carried him and five others to suborbital space, but offered few new details about the company’s future plans. 12)
Figure 11: Richard Branson (right) discusses the July 11 SpaceShipTwo flight he was on at a post-flight briefing along with the rest of the crew (from left): Dave Mackay, Mike Masucci, Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
- In a press conference here July 11, Branson and others said the “Unity 22” test flight met or exceeded expectations, with no serious issues during their ascent to approximately 86 kilometers and glide back to a runway landing.
- “I’m never going to be able to do it justice. It’s indescribably beautiful,” Branson said, describing the view out the windows. Earlier, speaking on stage at the spaceport after the flight, he described the experience “as just magical.”
- The flight itself was the fourth time the VSS Unity spaceplane had flown above the 80-kilometer altitude that the company defines as space. This flight was similar to the previous three, including the most recent one May 22, with few issues.
- “The quick look of what we saw live, and the pilot feedback, was that all systems performed normally,” Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, said in an interview after the flight. “The spaceship flew its trajectory fantastically.”
- There were a few minor issues, such as dropouts of live video from within the SpaceShipTwo cabin that Moses said might be caused by antenna blockages. The 90-minute delay in the flight, to a hotter part of the day, also meant the cabin was a little warmer than expected. “We can fix that pretty quickly,” Moses said. “It looks like we’re in pretty good shape.”
- Branson, who said he went on this flight to evaluate the overall experience, said he took note of minor things in the week leading up to the flight. “I’ve written down 30 or 40 little things that would make the next experience for the next person who goes to space with us that much better,” he said. “But, having said that, 99.99% was beyond my wildest dreams.”
- The flight was the first with four people in the cabin, including Branson and Virgin Galactic employees Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett and Beth Moses on board. “The feedback from the crew in the back was that the cabin was excellent. They really enjoyed their views. The hardware worked well,” Mike Moses said.
- Bennett, at the press conference, said he was busy in the first part of the flight doing checkouts of the cabin when Beth Moses, the test director of the flight, reminded him to look out the window. “The view was just stunning,” he said. “I was mesmerized for a good 30 to 40 seconds.”
- Mike Moses and other company executives did not give a schedule for upcoming flights. He said that will depend on a more thorough review of the data from this flight. Virgin Galactic still plans to perform two more test flights, including one for the Italian Air Force, before going into a maintenance period last this fall that will extend to early 2022.
- “We’re in a stage of testing now where we’re moving from the more hardcore aerodynamic testing into more operational readiness testing,” he said. “Now it’s much more about repeating the trajectory, evaluating the results and then optimize.”
- The company also didn’t offer much of a look at its future strategy. When Virgin Galactic announced July 1 that Branson would be on the flight, Branson said that afterward “I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts.” Many people interpreted that to be the resumption of ticket sales, something company executives previously said would take place after Branson flew.
- Instead, Branson announced a partnership with Omaze, a fundraising platform, to raffle off two seats on “one of the first” commercial SpaceShipTwo flights in early 2022. Funds raised in the contest will go to Space for Humanity, an organization that itself works to provide flight opportunities on suborbital vehicles and high-altitude balloons.
- “If enough people over the world participate, it just means the charity can keep on doing tickets for people,” Branson said. “It’s a lovely sort of self-propelling way of just trying to get lots of people who couldn’t have otherwise afforded it to go to space.”
- The prize includes a guided tour of the spaceport by Branson, but at the press conference he said it’s unlikely he’ll fly again on SpaceShipTwo any time soon. “Will I do another adventure? I’m not sure it would be fair to put my family through another one,” he said, a reference to past efforts, like attempting to fly a balloon across the Atlantic. “I’ll definitely give it a rest for the time being.”
Michael Greshko, ”What Virgin Galactic's milestone flight means
for the future of tourists in space,” National Geographic, 11
July 2021, URL: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science
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begins maintenance period,” SpaceNews, 14 October 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
4) Jeff Foust, ”FAA clears Virgin Galactic to resume SpaceShipTwo flights,” SpaceNews, 29 September 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/faa-clears-virgin-galactic-to-resume-spaceshiptwo-flights/
5) Jeff Foust, ”Potential component defect to delay next Virgin Galactic flight,” SpaceNews, 12 September 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/potential-component-defect-to-delay-next-virgin-galactic-flight/
6) Jeff Foust, ”Branson to be on next SpaceShipTwo flight July 11,” SpaceNews, 1 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/branson-to-be-on-next-spaceshiptwo-flight-july-11/
7) ”Billionaire blast off: Richard Branson plans space trip ahead of rival Bezos,” Space Daily, 2 July 2021, URL: https://www.spacedaily.com/reports/
8) Tania Steere, ”Virgin Galactic gains licence for commercial spaceflights,” Virgin Galactic, 25 June 2021, URL: https://www.virgin.com/about-virgin/latest/virgin-galactic-gains-licence-for-commercial-spaceflights
9) Jeff Foust, ”Virgin Galactic schedules next SpaceShipTwo test flight for May 22,” SpaceNews, 20 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-galactic-schedules-next-spaceshiptwo-test-flight-for-may-22/
10) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceShipTwo makes first flight to space from New Mexico,” SpaceNews, 22 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spaceshiptwo-makes-first-flight-to-space-from-new-mexico/
11) Jeff Foust, ”Branson flies to edge of space on SpaceShipTwo,” SpaceNews, 11 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/branson-flies-to-edge-of-space-on-spaceshiptwo/
Foust, ”Virgin Galactic, Branson laud SpaceShipTwo flight
“beyond my wildest dreams”,” SpaceNews, 11 July 2021,
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).