MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic rolled out its second SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane Feb. 19 as the company seeks to rebound from a fatal test flight accident more than a year ago.
In a ceremony at Virgin Galactic’s Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar here attended by a mix of dignitaries, celebrities and some of its several hundred customers, the company showed off a vehicle that the company billed as a symbol as its determination to recover from the October 2014 loss of the first SpaceShipOne during a test flight.
“One of reasons that we’re so proud of the spaceship we will shortly present to you is that it is the product not just of skill and determination, but of a willingness to learn and a commitment to continually improve,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic chief executive, said at the event.
The event had much of the pomp and circumstance of many Virgin events. The company towed the new SpaceShipTwo into the center of the hangar using an SUV, with company founder Sir Richard Branson standing in the vehicle’s sunroof. Later, he called upon his one-year-old granddaughter to christen the spacecraft using bottle of milk.
The vehicle is very similar to the first SpaceShipTwo with only a few noticeable differences, such as larger horizontal stabilizers on the vehicle’s twin tail booms and changes to its paint scheme. Company officials, though, said the vehicle incorporates other changes from both the earlier testing and development of SpaceShipTwo and the accident.
“It’s an evolutionary change,” said Mike Moses, senior vice president for operations at Virgin Galactic, in a briefing prior to the rollout. That includes changes learned from the development and early flight tests of the first SpaceShipTwo, such as changes to the structure and routing of wiring within the vehicle. “There’s nothing really sexy or exciting about those changes. That’s just the evolution of the design.”
Other changes, though, direct address the Oct. 31, 2014, accident, which was caused when co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering mechanism that raises the vehicle’s tail, causing an aerodynamic instability that broke the vehicle apart. A control system will physically lock the feathering lever in place when it is unsafe to engage the feathering system.
Moses added that there are other, unspecified changes to the vehicle as a result of the accident. “We used the lens of that accident to look at everything else we do, in manufacturing, in ground processing, in servicing the vehicle and in flying the vehicle,” he said. “We looked at systems way beyond what the scope of the accident investigation asked us to look at.”
The rollout marks the beginning of the vehicle’s test program, although company officials said it will be some time before this SpaceShipTwo takes to the sky. Moses said there will be a series of ground tests of various vehicle systems, followed by taxi tests on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. That will be followed by “captive carry” flights, where SpaceShipTwo remains attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, glide flights, and finally powered flights.
Company officials stubbornly refused to provide a detailed schedule for those test flights, including when the vehicle might be ready, even in a best-case scenario, to begin commercial service. “As soon as we tell you guys a date, we starting being held to one, and that’s why we don’t want the team being held that pressure,” Moses said.
Whitesides, though, said he expected many parts of the fight test program to run more quickly than for the first SpaceShipTwo, given the experience from that test program. “We just need to know that the vehicle we have is performing the same way as the last one did,” he said.
Virgin officials also said that they have made progress on the vehicle’s hybrid propulsion system since the accident, an effort that had suffered years of delays and changes in technical design during SpaceShipTwo’s overall development. “That was always the long pole in the tent for [SpaceShipTwo] serial number one, by years,” said Doug Shane, president of The Spaceship Company, the Virgin subsidiary responsible for building SpaceShipTwo.
Shane said the company has settled on a rubber-based solid fuel called hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), after testing both that and a polyamide fuel similar to nylon over the years. An internal company team has made “phenomenal progress” on the motor, he said, and the company is close to qualifying the motor for flight. “We’ll enter this flight test program with a rocket motor system that we’ll know will work, which really hobbled the serial number one flight testing program.”
Virgin Galactic also used the rollout to briefly reflect on the earlier accident. “With the great sense of achievement and excitement, there is also a sense of poignancy,” Whitesides said.
Shane, who noted at the rollout he had been involved with SpaceShipTwo and its predecessor SpaceShipOne at Scaled Composites since 1999, also noted the loss of Alsbury, who was killed in the accident. “I know he believed in this mission, and in this technology, and in this vehicle design,” he said of Alsbury. “And we’ve made this a better and safer system because making a better and safer system was what Mike was all about.”