SpaceShipTwo test flight
VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle, is carried aloft by its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft Sept. 8. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane made its first flight Sept. 8 as the company takes another step to recover from a fatal 2014 crash.

During the “captive carry” test flight, which took off from and landed back at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, SpaceShipTwo remained attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The flight, lasting 3 hours and 43 minutes, tested the airflow around the vehicle and its overall performance at the low temperatures found at altitudes of about 15,000 meters, where SpaceShipTwo would be released on a typical flight.

The flight was the first time this SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Unity, left the ground. Virgin Galactic rolled out the spaceplane in a February ceremony at its Mojave facility, after which the company spent several months carrying out ground tests.

While the company called the flight an “exciting milestone” for the company, it disclosed few details about the test flight itself. “With this flight in the books, our team will now analyze a mountain of flight data, learning what worked well and what could be improved for our next flight test,” the company said in a Sept. 8 statement.

The statement added that Virgin Galactic may perform additional captive carry tests depending on the outcome of the data analysis, as well as vehicle inspections and other planned work, before moving on to the next phase of the flight test program, where SpaceShipTwo is released from WhiteKnightTwo and glides to a runway landing. The company will later conduct powered test flights, where SpaceShipTwo ignites its hybrid rocket motor in a series of tests of increasing duration.

The first SpaceShipTwo, called the VSS Enterprise, was in that phase of powered test flights in October 2014 when the vehicle broke apart, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. An investigation led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that Alsbury prematurely unlocked the vehicle’s feather system, designed to raise the tail for a stable reentry. The aerodynamic forces on the vehicle at that phase of flight caused SpaceShipTwo to break apart.

The NTSB investigation also criticized Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, the company that built the original SpaceShipTwo, for not doing more to prevent human error. Virgin Galactic, which took over the construction of the second SpaceShipTwo, said it took steps to both prevent premature unlocking of the feather well as address other human factors issues.

“Our first flight test was an emotional and fulfilling moment for our hardworking team, even as we recognize how much work we have yet to do,” Virgin Galactic said in its statement about the test flight.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...