Virgin Galactic has taken a massive leap forward in it’s planned commuter flights to space. After the 2014 crash of VSS Enterprise over the Mojave Desert which cost the life of a co-pilot, the Richard Branson headed company has put its head down and focused on safety and the removal of potential human error. The 2014 crash was blamed on the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, who apparently activated the ‘feathering’ or braking system too early, causing the catastrophic accident.
While early testing of Virgin Galactic vehicles focused on the propulsion system, it’s likely that the organisation – while never admitting it – started this too early. The most recent test was a glide-fight, with VSS Unity being released from the mothership, and carrying out a controlled decent and successful landing. The mothership – WhiteKnightTwo, and Unity, have flown together on a few occasions before, but have never separated, so a glide-flight from the vehicle is seen as a massive step forward, and a change of tack for the business, which has shelved plans to build an orbital tourism vehicle in favour of a more commercially viable option.
Virgin Galactic aims to be the first company to offer point-to-point suborbital spaceflight; enabling commuters to get where they want to go much, much faster. For example, a flight from Sydney to London – usually taking around 22 hours, would be complete in under 2 hours thanks to high speeds, high flight levels and rockets with the equivalent power of an intercontinental ballistic missile. To attract the proper demographic, safety will have to be paramount, and Virgin Galactic’s initial marketing; focused on attracting adventurers and would-be astronauts, doesn’t fit with the safety and luxury conscious first-class traveller.
After the successful glide-flight, Richard Branson was far from celebratory, shirking his usual relaxed tone for an almost dry acknowledgement of the successful flight, and satisfaction that the data collected is robust and can be used for ongoing testing. He spoke of additional glide-flights before the next stage of testing – the rockets and propulsion systems. This will no doubt fill both he and other backers of the enterprise with dread, as another failure during powered tests could spell the end for Virgin as a commercial space venture, and set the cause back decades.