Eager to push ahead with its commercial spaceflight program while focusing heavily on safety following the fatal 2014 crash of its SpaceShipTwo passenger craft, Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch the first test flight of its redesigned suborbital spaceplane.
The first test flight in nearly two years is set to take place next month, Virgin Galactic VP Jonathan Firth told Bloomberg.
Unveiled back in February, the latest SpaceShipTwo plane, called Unity, has recently undergone extensive ground-based testing to ensure its safety, with its team of engineers having “poked, prodded, stretched, squeezed, bent, and twisted” every single component that went into creating the new space vehicle. It’s also been put through “thousands of pressure cycles simulating flight from ground level to space and back [and] 100 full-scale tests of our rocket motor system,” the team said earlier this year.
Aware of the need to take its testing program one small step at a time, Unity’s first airborne trial in August will see it stay attached to a larger aircraft throughout the flight. If all goes well, the team hopes to conduct its first full-powered independent flight some time in 2017.
While Virgin Galactic would no doubt love to beat Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team in offering the first regularly operated flights to the edge of space for paying tourists, the company knows it can’t afford another disaster like the one it suffered two years ago, so will therefore take as long as it needs in order to ensure the safety of its technology.
Virgin Galactic has already taken nearly 700 bookings for suborbital flights, with each ticket costing a hefty $250,000. Firth suggested that over time competition could push ticket prices to below the $100,000 mark, bringing trip-of-a-lifetime opportunities to a much larger number of wannabe space adventurers.
The company has decided not to name a target date for its first commercial flights, having “thrown out so many dates in the past that we weren’t able to keep to,” Firth said. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is aiming to launch its first manned missions in 2017, with a view to offering its first tourist trips the following year.