Virgin Galactic has given us a first glimpse of its would-be corporate space jet, SpaceShipTwo, in flight

By Tim Fernholz
Virgin Galactic

Mojave Air and Space Port, California
The only problem was the wind, which had chosen this day to break its usual routine.
Out in the desert, mornings are typically calm, with winds building during the day. On June 1, at the Mojave aerodrome 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles, the opposite happened: Strong winds in the morning postponed a planned test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Anxious technicians watched windsocks scattered around the aerodrome, which dispiritingly refused to agree on where the wind was coming from or how fast it was going.

SpaceShipTwo itself looks like a small, nattily-attired corporate jet with unusually elaborate wings. It is designed to hang from a carrier plane called a White Knight that soars nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 m) into the air. Then, SpaceShipTwo is released to ignite its rocket engine, roar up into space and, after hanging at the peak of its flight path for a few minutes, glide back down to earth to land on a runway. When it’s fully operational, Virgin founder Richard Branson expects it to carry six paying passengers on a 3-gee thrill ride to the edge of space.

Despite more than 12 years of development, the company has yet to put any passengers in its craft. It’s a testament to the challenge of developing a vehicle that can withstand the rigors of space. June 1 was one of only a couple of times the company has hosted reporters at a test flight since an accident in 2014 resulted in the death of one of the company’s test pilots, Michael Asbury.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that problems in the plane’s design turned a predictable mistake into disaster. Asbury had unlocked the plane’s rotating tail booms, or “feather,” at the wrong time, causing it to break up in flight; nothing prevented him from doing so. The vehicle’s original designer, Burt Rutan, a legend in aerospace—who won the Ansari X-Prize for sending the first privately-funded, crewed vehicle into space—had argued that “if space is going to be cheap, it has to be stick-and-rudder.” But investigators found that this philosophy put too much pressure on the pilot to operate flawlessly.

“During design, Scaled [Composites, Rutan’s company] did not consider the possibility that a pilot would unlock the feather before 1.4 Mach [1.4 times the speed of sound] and as such no safeguards were built into the feather system designed to prevent this,”an NTSB official said after the investigation. “Although program personnel said that they were aware that unlocking [the rotating wings] during transonic flight would be catastrophic, there was no warning, caution or limitation in the pilot operating handbook or test card that specified this risk.”

That accident accelerated a reorganization that had begun in 2012, when Virgin Galactic took complete control of the company manufacturing its airplanes and spacecraft. Previously it had been a joint venture with Scaled Composites. Now, Virgin Galactic would handle all aspects of testing and development itself. The company unveiled a new SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, at the beginning of 2016, with new safety features. One of the company’s pilots, Todd Ericson, a former chief of safety for the US Air Force’s test-flight program, was appointed the safety lead.

Now, the newest incarnation of SpaceShipTwo is deep into its second attempt to be certified as safe for passengers. When will that happen? “When we’re ready,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. This is how they’ll get there.

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