Space tourism firm Virgin Galactic has been given the go ahead by the FAA to take paying customers to the edge of space, in a first for the aviation industry.
The firm said there were still three test flights to go before it takes the first commercial astronauts next year, but this is an important step in that journey.
The new licence from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) gives the firm the right to send paying customers into space, and not just as part of a test flight.
But they have to finish their test program first, and one of those flights will include Sir Richard Branson, although whether it will go up before Jeff Bezos travels to space with Blue Origin on July 20 is ‘pure speculation’, Virgin Galactic said.
There had been rumours Branson would travel to space, and experience weightlessness for a few minutes, on July 4, but the firm said that would not happen.
Originally Branson was scheduled to fly up to more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface on VSS Unity’s second of three remaining test flights, but that may now be moved forward, after Bezos said he’d be flying to space with his brother next month.
There are 600 ‘future astronauts’ waiting to fly with Virgin, some of whom purchased tickets more than a decade ago, who will be celebrating the licence change.
There had been rumours Sir Richard would travel to space, and experience weightlessness for a few minutes, on July 4, but Virgin Galactic said that would not happen
There are 600 ‘future astronauts’ waiting to fly with Virgin, some of whom purchased tickets more than a decade ago, who will be celebrating the licence change
TIMELINE: VSS UNITY LAUNCHES
May 2021: Sir Richard Branson’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane successfully launches from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It powered to a height of 55 miles (89km) and then glided back down to Earth.
The test flight was the first with the pilots flying solo.
Summer 2021: A second test flight is due to take place with a full load to test the passenger cabin.
It is set to include the pilots plus four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees. However, could Branson now be among them?
A third test flight is also planned and this is when the Virgin Galactic founder had been expected to gain his commercial astronaut wings.
It is designed to showcase the astronaut experience through the eyes of the company founder.
September 2021: First revenue generation flight with the Italian Air Force to test passenger and payload.
This flight will take both astronauts and scientific equipment to the edge of space on VSS Unity.
Early 2022: The start of full commercial flights from Spaceport America.
The dozens of Future Astronauts, who paid to fly to the edge of space, will begin earning their astronaut wings.
The new change to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) space transportation operator licence means the first of the 600 will be able to travel next year.
It gives the firm permission to take customers to space and is the first licence of its kind to be awarded to a space aviation company by the FAA.
‘It is further validation of the company’s methodical testing program, which has met the verification and validation criteria required by the FAA,’ a spokesperson said.
The company also announced that it has completed an extensive review of data gathered from its May 22 test flight and confirmed it performed as expected.
During this test flight VSS Unity accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of just over 55 miles before making its gliding return to New Mexico.
Branson said the flight took his company closer to commercial operations, more than 15 years after it was founded, as it ‘tested a lot of new systems that the teams have been building and they all worked.’
Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said the firm was ‘incredibly pleased’ with the results of that test flight.
‘The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,’ he said.
‘Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license gives us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.’
Originally that ‘fully crewed’ test flight would have involved members of Virgin Galactic staff testing out the cabin and seats to ensure it operates as expected.
The second of three test flights would run in a similar way, but also include Sir Richard Branson, although speculation is that he will go on the next flight.
The firm hasn’t confirmed when that flight will take place, or announced the flight window, but speculation is that it will happen by the end of July.
This could see Branson fly to space before Jeff Bezos goes up on the New Shepherd rocket alongside his brother and the winning bidder of a $28 million auction.
Unlike Blue Origin and New Shepherd, which takes the traditional vertical rocket launch to orbit, Virgin Galactic takes its spacecraft up to 43,000ft on a mothership that takes off from a runway, before separating, firing its rockets and reaching space.
The May 22 test flight of VMS Eve and VSS Unity was the company’s third crewed spaceflight and the first-ever spaceflight from Spaceport America, New Mexico.
Originally that ‘fully crewed’ test flight would have involved members of Virgin Galactic staff testing out the cabin and seats to ensure it operates as expected
Ready to launch: Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility. One seat on the flight, scheduled for July 20, has been auctioned to the highest bidder
THE CURRENT VIRGIN GALACTIC FLEET
VMS Eve: The launch platform for the SpaceShipTwo and Spaceship III based Virgin Galactic vehicles.
VMS stands for Virgin MotherShip and is named after Evette Branson, mother of founder Sir Richard Branson.
So far only one has been built and it made its first flight in December 2008.
VSS Unity: Based on the SpaceShip Two class of vehicle, it is a rocket powered glider.
A replacement for the destroyed VSS Enterprise, Unity first flew to space in December 2018.
It has reached an altitude of 50 miles, earning its pilots commercial astronaut wings for the first time in 2018.
VSS Imagine: The first Spaceship III class of spaceplane, due to begin glide tests summer 2021.
VSS Inspire: The second Spaceship III class of spaceplane currently under construction in California by the Spaceship Company.
The flight achieved a speed of Mach 3 and reached space at an altitude of 55.5 miles, enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and see the Earth.
After an extensive review of the data collected during the flight, the company confirmed that elements of the flight went as planned.
For example the rocket-powered test of the spaceship’s upgraded horizontal stabilisers and flight controls worked as expected and performed well.
These enhanced systems, which allow for finer pilot control, will also be deployed in future spaceships in the company’s fleet.
It wasn’t just an empty cabin though, as it included three ‘revenue-generating research experiments’ that the firm was testing for NASA.
The pilots flew VSS Unity on a specific trajectory designed to meet the objectives of these research experiments.
With the data analysis from the May flight now complete, Virgin Galactic will continue preparing for the remaining three test flights.
It is expected that the second test flight will be in July, although that has yet to be confirmed. The third flight will take researchers from the Italian Air Force to space.
Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a billionaire and his sweepstakes winners in September on an orbital trip in an adapted Crew Dragon.
The firm hasn’t confirmed when the next test flight will take place, or announced the flight window, but speculation is that it will happen by the end of July
VSS Unity is the rocket ‘spaceship’ that flies attached to the VMS Eve mothership up to 43,000ft, is detached from the mothership, fires rocket engines that take it into space, then glides back to Earth after a period of weightlessness
That is expected to be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.
It is planning for liftoff of its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing that will include Bezos himself.
HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?
Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.
Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.
WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).
The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.
Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home
Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.
Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.
The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.
WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)
This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.
After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.
The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.
As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.
At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing.
Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future