MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic is about to face its most serious challenge to date. This time, to fulfill its quest to pioneer private sector human space flight, it's going it alone, without assistance from another firm.
The private spaceflight company just rolled out its newest suborbital space plane, a version of its SpaceShipTwo design named Unity.
Unity's unveiling, which took place here at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Friday, signals the start of a new act for the Richard Branson-led space outfit after a fatal accident in 2014 left them grounded without a ship.
The first SpaceShipTwo — which disintegrated above Mojave during the crash on Oct. 31, 2015 — was built and tested by a different company, Scaled Composites, for Virgin Galactic.
But Unity is different.
Now, Virgin Galactic (with its manufacturing arm the Spaceship Company) will be responsible for building, testing and flying Unity and future SpaceShipTwo-type spacecraft all on its own.
And that burden is never far from the minds of those getting Unity in tip-top shape.
"We are fully responsible for everything," William Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic vice -president for special projects, told Mashable.
Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic's senior vice president of operations, said the company's mindset is similar to what he experienced as a member of the NASA space shuttle team.
"Our mentality is the same that I had at NASA which is: Every flight is a test flight, and I don't mean that in the literal sense; I mean that in the philosophical sense," he said during a press conference.
"The vision is that we get a vehicle that's ready to do rapid turnarounds, frequent flights to space. We just have to take our time getting there," Moses said.
An investigation and changes
Virgin Galactic is also trying to do something very different than Scaled Composites, according to Moses.
Scaled's "goal was to test a single system, and our goal is to build a fleet, and that really does drive a culture just by itself," Moses said during a press briefing.
"There are definitely differences between our program and theirs; we're not trying to judge one as better than another," Moses added. "We're obviously happy with ours."
Scaled Composites was planning to hand over operations and manufacturing to Virgin Galactic even before the 2014 accident.
Fortunately for Virgin Galactic, an independent investigation and a National Board of Transportation report both concluded that the design of SpaceShipTwo is fundamentally sound, so the company didn't have to do a full redesign.
But because of the failure, the company did need to change its plans, particularly its timeline.
Instead of thinking of Unity as a ship ready to take to the skies with passengers, Virgin Galactic needed to move into a more test flight-centered mindset.
"So, right after the accident we had to pivot pretty quickly and go back to make this a test flight vehicle," Moses said. "It's got extra sensors, extra wiring, extra hardware onboard that you need for a flight test program."
Virgin has also changed up some of the design elements of the spacecraft to make sure the same kind of failure doesn't happen again.
The Enterprise disintegrated when its feathering mechanism was unlocked too early, causing an unexpected aerodynamic breakup.
The new SpaceShipTwo will have a fail-safe mechanism put in place that prevents the ship's feather feature — used to bring the craft back toward Earth after reaching peak altitude on a flight — from unlocking too early.
Putting Unity through its paces
Virgin Galactic is now beginning to walk the slow road back to where they were when the 2014 failure occurred.
According to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, the company should get back to where it was before the accident in less than five years, though he wouldn't give an estimate for when they will start flying customers to the edge of space.
"I believe in the project"
The company will start by testing systems on the ground before moving on to tests with SpaceShipTwo mounted to its carrier aircraft, known as WhiteKnightTwo. Once those flights are complete, they will start glide tests of the craft, during which SpaceShipTwo will be released from the carrier and flown back to Earth.
After that, the company will fly powered test flights.
These tests will all happen in Mojave, where the first SpaceShipTwo disintegrated during a powered test flight.
"Each flight will generally fly a little higher, a little faster, and sometimes we may need to repeat a test point to get additional data or confirm a result," Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
"When she first crosses 100,000 feet (31 km), SpaceShipTwo will already be above 99% of the atmosphere, and the pilots will experience true weightlessness while surrounded by a sky that has noticeably begun turning black."
Those who fly
SpaceShipTwo is designed to take off from a conventional, mounted beneath its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo.
The two craft will climb together to about 50,000 feet before SpaceShipTwo is released and its rocket motor kicks on. From there, the ship will fly under its own power up to about 100 kilometers.
Passengers on the space plane ride will experience minutes of weightlessness and see Earth against the blackness of space while floating in the cabin.
A ticket isn't cheap, however; a seat onboard SpaceShipTwo will run you about $250,000.
The accident hasn't appeared to shake the confidence of many of the 700 people with tickets to fly to space with Virgin Galactic.