In a big step for private space travel, Virgin Galactic recently announced it had made its first successful glide flight, a big step towards further testing and a milestone after tragedy struck the company just two years ago.
In its first successful flight, the new SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Unity, was carried by specialty dual-fuselage jet WhiteKnightTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. After it was released from the plane at about 50,000 feet, it flew back to earth on its own. Virgin Galactic announced via Twitter: “VSS Unity has landed. Vehicle and crew are back safe and sound after a successful first glide test flight.” The test is a huge milestone, as it proves SpaceShipTwo can navigate on its own through changing air pressures and conditions.
Although Unity’s weight was purposefully kept light for the initial test, Virgin Galactic said it is now open to tougher flight testing. Eventually, the rocket’s hybrid rocket motor will be added to propel the spacecraft. The hybrid motor uses both a liquid oxidizer and a solid fuel source to create a motor that can be shut down quickly and safely, if needed, at any point of the flight.
SpaceShipTwo is the commercial version of SpaceShipOne, which was the first private spacecraft to reach the edge of space in 2004. Although the makeup of SpaceShipTwo is slightly different, it can rely on the success of SpaceShipOne to guide its development.
Virgin Galatic’s successful flight is especially meaningful in the wake of a deadly crash it suffered in October 2014 when the first version of the SpaceShipTwo disintegrated over the Mojave Desert on its way back to earth. The pilot was injured but able to parachute to safety, but the co-pilot died in the explosion. Virgin Galactic and investigators later ruled that the crash was caused by premature brake deployment. The accident was a major loss for the company and caused engineers to re-evaluate the safety of each aspect of the SpaceShipTwo. The newer version of the spacecraft was announced earlier this year and looks very similar to the original version. Virgin Galactic didn’t take the most recent glide test lightly, as it realized the gravity of returning to the scene of the accident.
Virgin Galactic, owned by eccentric billionaire Sir Richard Branson, wants to become the spaceline for earth and “democratize access to space for the benefit of life on earth.” It has the eventual goal of bringing tourists to the edge of space, which is more than 62 miles above earth. Only 558 people in history have travelled beyond earth’s atmosphere, and Virgin Galactic wants to open the opportunity up to the masses. Six passengers at a time would travel on suborbital flights for three hours, which would give them the feeling of momentary weightlessness and an unbelievable view of earth, all under the direction of fully trained astronauts.
SpaceShipTwo has a very unique design compared to traditional NASA rockets. Because everything is aimed at space tourists, comfort is key. The spaceship features custom seats for each passenger and is lined with a dozen windows to provide spectacular views throughout the entire journey.
At $250,000, the trips won’t be cheap, and they must be paid in full upfront. However, that hasn’t stopped more than 600 people from signing up for the adventure, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. True to the mission of the company, the members of the Future Astronaut Club come from diverse backgrounds, and most would likely never qualify to be government funded astronauts, meaning that private space travel is their only opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.
Virgin Galactic is just one of many companies working towards space tourism, though it seems to be one of the most advanced companies. There are obviously logistical and safety questions surrounding letting everyday people in space, as well as claims that Virgin Galactic can’t really democratize space travel as it claims when the price tag for a voyage is still beyond most people’s budgets. However, as technology advances and successful journeys begin, there is hope that the price can be lowered and the adventure can be more accessible to people around the world. Virgin Galactic has said it won’t start commercial space flights until it knows for sure they can be executed safely.
Bringing space travel to the masses is a daunting task, but the success of the glide flight puts the company on track for more advanced testing and eventual approval. Within years, people may be on their way to taking a vacation to outer space.