After a move to their new home port, Virgin Galactic are getting ready to go commercial. And they have more customers than just thrill-seekers.
It is a project that has been in development now for seventeen years. The basic idea has remained the same, but development issues and accidents have held it back. Now, Virgin Galactic says that they are getting close to making suborbital pleasure flights into space, a reality. This comes after the completion of their third space flight and the very first, in their new base in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic has performed many more flights, but the others didn’t reach the minimum 50 miles of altitude. That’s where space begins, according to NASA. However, the previous two space flights were in December 2018 and February 2019. Then the company busied itself with the move to New Mexico. This had always been part of the plan, at Spaceport America. This State-run facility was intended to attract private space projects – and it did.
How The Virgin Galactic Aircraft Work
The concept/profile of Virgin Galactic’s space flights works something like this: a mothership, called WhiteNightTwo takes off from a normal runway. This aircraft has four engines, of a type you would normally find propelling a medium-sized business jet. Underneath the middle section of the aircraft lies another vehicle, called the SpaceShipTwo. This is a rocket-powered vehicle, that detaches from the mothership at altitude, fires up its engine and rockets into space.
The SpaceShipTwo doesn’t fly so fast that it would burn on re-entry, but it still needs a way to stabilize itself. So, two booms in the rear of the plane rotate upwards, reconfiguring it as a kind of lifting body. Then as the vehicle hits the upper reaches of the atmosphere, its shape stabilizes its attitude. The Virgin Galactic pilots then return it to its initial configuration, for a runway landing.
As the names of the aircraft suggest, they have been through a couple of iterations already. The designer of the original vehicles (SpaceShipOne and WhiteNightOne) was Burt Rutan, a legendary designer of innovative aircraft. Does the general layout of the Virgin Galactic aircraft reminds you of something? You could be thinking of the Stratolaunch Roc. Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s company, had a lot to do with the design of that aircraft, too.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also had plans to launch space vehicles, with their projects. Eventually, that element of the enterprise branched out and became Virgin Orbit. Sticking to the aerial launch concept, they use a Boeing 747-400 as their ‘mothership’!
Just (?) Suborbital Flights – For Now
So Virgin Orbit will stick to suborbital flights, for up to six passengers at a time. These passengers will fly for about 90 minutes, and will experience weightlessness in space. The company already has 600 firm customers, paying $250,000 each for the 60-mile high ride! But that’s not all. Short suborbital flights like these present a chance for some short but vital scientific experiments. This is part of the programme, too.
Yesterday Virgin Galactic announced that they will fly a healthcare researcher to space. This will be Kellie Gerardi, from the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences. She will serve as a payload specialist. Her work includes wearable sensor systems and syringes specifically for use in space. Virgin Galactic will conduct more test flights, in partnership with NASA and the Italian Air Force!
The pandemic caused Virgin Atlantic lose over a year, because of restrictions in its new base in New Mexico. Now that they’re flying again, we should see how their work progresses. They still have competition in suborbital space tourism, from Blue Origin! They’ve also had other activities in the past, including options for 10 Boom Overture supersonic jets…