Firm Expanding Spaceship Test Flights To Hone ‘Virgin Space Experience’

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Mojave, Calif. — The upcoming test flights of SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot vehicle designed for commercial suborbital travel, will not only put the ship through increasingly more extreme environments, but also provide owner Virgin Galactic the opportunity to create what it calls the “Virgin space experience” for customers who are paying $200,000 or $250,000 to fly.

The air-launched SpaceShipTwo, designed and manufactured by Scaled Composites of Mojave, so far has made two powered test flights, with a maximum motor burn of about 20 seconds and an altitude of about 21 kilometers.

To travel beyond the atmosphere — roughly 100 kilometers above the planet — SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine will need to burn for about a minute, a milestone Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson expects to occur early next year. He plans to be aboard for the spaceship’s first commercial flight in June or July.

“Rocket science is as difficult as people make out,” Branson told SpaceNews. “We’ve had 10 years of struggles and now we’re beginning to get a very big grin on our faces as we get so close.”

“The really important milestone for us were those two powered flights,” added Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. “The second one we did the whole flight profile. … Although we got nowhere near space, and there was no intention of doing that, to have the whole system integrated and working was very important. In many ways it was the last big piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the test flight program and removed most — not all — of the remaining technical risks of the program.”  

The company has applied for a commercial operator’s license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees private spaceflight, and is going through the informed consent process and conditions of carriage with its first customers.

Virgin Galactic also is ramping up its operations team, designing uniforms and flight suits, and arranging hotels and hospitality for its fliers and guests near Spaceport America in New Mexico, where SpaceShipTwo, carrier aircraft White Knight Two and planned sister ships will be based. 

“It’s a very exciting time because we’re really now putting the spaceline together,” Attenborough said.

Upcoming powered test flights in Mojave will subject the vehicle to increased heating during its re-entry into the atmosphere, re-entry at supersonic speeds and maximum aerodynamic pressure, all of which require longer rocket motor burns and higher altitudes. 

Concurrently, Virgin Galactic will install and test the cabin interior. 

“We’re basically creating the environment you’re going to be in,” said Mike Moses, a former NASA shuttle manager who is now Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations. 

“We have the vessel to take you there and we have what you experience while you’re there. It’s a twofold thing: Functionally, ‘Do you have enough airflow? Are you cool enough?’ and ‘Does the seat belt work in zero gravity and did we train you properly to use that seat belt such that you can get back in reliably,’” he said. 

“There are several elements of validation. Validate that the vehicle is good and then validate that our training program is good. Those are the milestones still in front of us,” Moses said. 

“I don’t think there’s a challenge that is insurmountable. There just might be some unknowns coming our way,” he added.

To achieve both goals, future test flights will include not only two pilots at the front of the spaceship but flight test engineers in the crew cabin. 

“It may not be six in the back, but it will be people we can fly under our experimental license to make sure that the customer experience works, the safety procedures work, that they can get in and out of their seats and do whatever else they need to do to prove the customer experience,” Attenborough said. 

“We need to find out what the artist, the poet, the computer engineer, the businessman want to do in space and then we need to design, as far as we can, customized experiences around each individual’s objectives for that trip,” Attenborough added. 

“What we’re doing as a first step is hard. We’re doing this properly so we can go on to bigger and better and greater things,” he said.