Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has officially unveiled its new SpaceShipTwo, a space plane designed to take commercial customers into suborbital space.
At a packed unveiling event in Mojave, California, Professor Stephen Hawking officially named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity via a recorded message.
Built for altitudes of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles), the aircraft accommodates six passengers and two pilots.
This news comes 16 months after the Virgin Galactic space program was halted in the wake of the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise crash, which killed one pilot and seriously injured another. Though the VSS Unity is almost identical to the previous incarnation, there have been a few structural changes implemented, largely to prevent a similar tragedy from taking place. The craft also sports a new silver and white look.
“Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth,” said Branson. “Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal, also great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose.”
Given that the core raison d’être of Virgin Galactic’s business is to entice rich space tourists and researchers, safety is of the utmost importance. If it is to succeed in creating a successful commercial enterprise from space travel, the company can’t afford any more such setbacks.
But space exploration is increasingly opening beyond the confines of government agencies and into the private enterprise realm, with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Microsoft’s Paul Allen each backing various programs of their own. Still, in the competitive space race, it’s crucial that corners aren’t cut for the sake of expediting progress — each safety blip not only risks human life, but also likely sets progress back years.
In a teaser announcement on Thursday, Virgin Galactic emphasized its rigorous testing procedures. “When we talk to our customers, partners, and supporters about our mission of opening space to all, they often express both a desire for the future to arrive quickly and also a profound sense of amazement that commercial space travel is finally something real, not just science fiction,” the statement read. “Managing that transition from fiction to reality requires clever ideas, lots of hard work, and above all else, lots and lots of testing.”
Yesterday’s unveiling doesn’t mean that the new aircraft will be taking civilian passengers into orbit any time soon — that day is still some way off. Following a series of ground-based tests to ensure the vehicle functions as intended, it will be tested in-flight with its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, before being glide-tested by pilots through the skies from an altitude of more than 45,000 feet (14 km). Then a series of rocket-powered test flights will be carried out before the vehicle can be made available to paying customers.
Branson hasn’t put a timeline on when Virgin Galactic will take its first tourists into space, but we are likely talking at least another year or two. “When we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so,” the company said.
Encouraging words for the 700 people who have signed up to pay $250,000 for a seat on VSS Unity.