Humanity’s dream of going on a space voyage may turn out to be reality sooner than expected, as Virgin Galactic’s Unity vehicle takes two people to the edge of the suborbital space. When commercial space flights eventually launch, prices could run between $200,000 and $250,000.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ensured that the dream of taking men and women, who are not trained astronauts, into space will soon come to fruition. The space tour company conducted the first of the three key test flights that should enable it to enter commercial service. The Unity vehicle, with pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow at the controls, powered to a height of 89km (55 miles), and then glided back down to earth.
Virgin Galactic will also ground-test VSS Imagine, its first SpaceShip III vehicle, this summer. VSS Imagine, which will take humans on a space flight and transform us into space voyagers, is pretty much ready to take flight. This summer, Virgin Galactic will begin ground testing its shiny, chic spaceship with glide flights from its spaceport, Spaceship America, based in New Mexico.
“The spaceship showcases Virgin Galactic’s innovation in design and astronaut experience. Imagine also demonstrates efficient design and production, as Virgin Galactic works to scale up the business for the long-term,” says Michael Colglazier, CEO, Virgin Galactic. Work is progressing steadily on VSS Inspire, the second Spaceship III vehicle.
With its fleet of three mean flying machines, including VSS Unity that was built earlier, Virgin Galactic hopes to fly 400 flights per year, per spaceport.
As VSS Imagine begins ground testing, manufacturing will progress on VSS Inspire, the second SpaceShip III vehicle within the Virgin Galactic fleet. Virgin’s Founder & CEO Sir Richard Branson says, “Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transformative perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves. As a SpaceShipIII class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at, but also represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring change to our planet.”
(Left) Virgin Galactic’s pre-flight preparation at its Mexico base; (Right) Part of its fleet that will take humans into space.
Unity is scheduled to fly into space four times, from May through early fall: twice with a test crew, the third with Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson, and the fourth with a team from the Italian air force, who will explore the scientific and research possibilities of a Virgin space flight. “It will demonstrate the potential for astronaut training,” says Colglazier. After Sir Branson’s flight, Virgin will open future flights to the public. Right now, more than 600 have signed on.
Prices are said to run between $200,000 and $250,000. Unity will begin commercial flights in 2022, Imagine will soon follow, and then Infinity will eventually enter service.
The design breakthroughs
The third generation spaceship, meant for commercial use for space tourists, will set gold standards for the design and manufacture of future space vehicles.
The innovative livery design allows Imagine to mirror the surrounding environment, as it moves from earth to space. The spaceship is finished with a mirror-like material, changing colour constantly, besides providing the much-needed thermal protection.
Imagine the landscape transform as the spaceship flies across the brown mountainous landscape of Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in Mexico, the brilliant blue sky as it ascends, and then the darkness of the space, before you actually see the stars that look far brighter (as several astronauts have reported), as the spaceship makes the final transition.
“The livery is pretty amazing,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has said. “It also reflects the planet when we’re in space.”
Imagine is almost identical to VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo-class suborbital rocket-powered crewed spaceplane. It is the second SpaceShipTwo to be built and will be used as part of the Virgin Galactic fleet. However, Imagine will have tweaks to enhance its performance. Both generations of the spaceship will be lifted by a mothership, VMS Eve, from the spaceport and eventually released for the trip into space. The spaceships will carry six passengers, who will experience six minutes of weightlessness once the aircraft moves into orbit.
Space tourists, who will be part of these history-making flights, are participants in every step of the journey. Dee Chester, who will be one of the travellers taking the flight, towed the new spaceship out of the hangar for the first time by hooking it to her customised Astronaut Edition Range Rover.
Collaborating with Disney
Joe Rhode, former Disney ‘Imagineer’, will design space experiences for the lucky travellers who take the flights.
Virgin Galactic has hired Joe Rohde, a Disney veteran and its former ‘Imagineer’, as an Experience Architect. His job is to create a “space experience” so magical that the travellers are left stunned. He hopes to fuse imagination and engineering to create a vivid lifelike experience for both — the astronauts and the paying public.
Being able to go to space “is one of the most profound things that can happen to you,” Rohde has said, “to go beyond the reaches of the earth, into space, and to look back down at it. It’s a spectacularly unique opportunity with a huge potential for transformational change in a person.”
Passengers aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo — the first commercial human spaceflight vehicle — will experience the unique thrills of spaceflight and an opportunity to leave their seats to float in zero gravity for several minutes.
Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight business aims to fly more people to space in its first few years of service, than those who have already taken the flight through all of history. Its sister company, Virgin Orbit, will provide launch opportunities for new orbital technology via its small satellite launch service. Its launch vehicle will open up the space frontier to innovators of all sorts, from start-ups and schools to adventure travellers, established space companies and national space agencies.
The back story
The space voyage dream for people who are not astronauts but mere travellers with a sense of adventure, was set rolling during Ansari XPRIZE, a space competition. The X Prize Foundation offered a US$10,000,000 prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into space, but with a caveat: it had to be done twice within two weeks. It called for private-sector innovations in the field of manned space exploration.
Specifically, participants had to design, build and fly a privately funded vehicle that could deliver the weight of three people (including one actual person) to space. The vehicle had to be at least 80 per cent reusable and fly twice within two weeks.
Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a Paul G. Allen company, and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites pursued the prize with Rutan-designed SpaceShipOne, an air-launched all-composite rocket ship. Virgin Group sponsored both of SpaceShipOne’s XPRIZE winning flights, flown in September and October 2004 by pilots Mike Melville and Brian Binnie respectively. SpaceShipOne is now permanently displayed in the Milestones of Flight Gallery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
With this success, Virgin Group licensed Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ technology and invested in the development of a second-generation vehicle for commercial ventures. And thus, Virgin Galactic was born. Realising that private space travel will soon be reality, early adopters began making reservations for flights, providing vital and tangible proof of a readily available market at a commercially viable price.
Virgin Galactic operates from The Gateway to Space building at Spaceport America. The Spaceport is located on 18,000 acres in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin. It is adjacent to White Sands Missile Range and resides under restricted air space with WSMR. Spaceport America includes vertical and horizontal launch complexes, including a 12,000ft x 200ft runway from which flights will take off.