After a tragedy grounded Virgin Galactic’s airborne operations two years ago, the company has been slow and cautious in getting back in the saddle. But now, a new rocket plane from the New Mexico-based arm of the Virgin Group marks a return to near-space. On Friday, “a spaceship built by our manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, and operated by us at Virgin Galactic has taken to the skies,” the company wrote in a blog post.
The nearly four-hour long flight involved two vehicles. It’s a unique aspect of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight program, whose shuttles don’t launch from a ground-based pad, but rather from “under the wing of a carrier aircraft.” In this case, the carrier aircraft role was fulfilled by the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, the VMS Eve, and the spacecraft itself was the VSS Unity. Friday’s test was actually a so-called “captive carry” mission, in which the VSS Unity and VMS Eve stayed together for the entirety of the flight.
“In this configuration, WhiteKnightTwo serves as a veritable ‘flying wind tunnel,’ allowing the highest fidelity method of testing airflow around SpaceShipTwo while simultaneously testing how the spaceship performs when exposed to the frigid temperatures found at today’s maximum altitude of ~50,000 feet and above,” explained Virgin Galactic.
The test was an emotional one for the Virgin Galactic team. In 2014, a pilot was killed and another injured when their spacecraft underwent a “serious anomaly,” exploding shortly after it separated from its carrier craft. At the time, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote, “I am writing this as we refuel on one of the most difficult trips I have ever had to make. I will be in Mojave soon to join the Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composite teams involved in the SpaceShipTwo flight test program. Mojave is also where I want to be — with the dedicated and hard-working people who are now in shock at this devastating loss.”
But Virgin Galactic has persevered, and now, the company promises to work even harder to create commercial space flights that are “efficient, effective, and safe.”