VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane of Virgin Galactic, just passed a significant milestone. It went for a casual flight in the sky on Saturday, though this was just a test glide, as the rockets’ engines were not fired up. The ship’s carrier airplane, White Knight Two, hauled VSS Unity to a very high altitude and then set it free. The Unity then glided back to the Mojave Air and Space Port, with test pilot Mark Stucky and Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot Dave Mackay at the helm. Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson piloted White Knight Two, with Dustin Mosher as flight engineer. Virgin Galactic reported that the crew was “safe and sound” after “a successful first glide test flight.” The total travel time was just a brisk 10 minutes. The Virgin founder, Richard Branson, was naturally on hand to view everything that took place since this is his personal project.
The main purpose of the flight was to test out the plane’s basic performance and handling, and the successful test was another ticked checkbox towards the eventual dream or goal of suborbital flights. More test glides are planned, and they will eventually move onto the real thing which is the first, and eventually other, rocket-powered flights. Virgin Galactic has stated that it will really get serious with eventual test runs in the near future “that cross the boundary of outer space.” The usual standard for these “boundary crossings” into space is 50 miles, according to U.S. Air Force standards and 62 miles, according to international standards. You might recall the first SpaceShipTwo suffered an “in-flight anomaly” during a rocket-powered test on Halloween of 2014 when the craft exploded at approximately 45,000 feet in the air at around 10.a.m on that October 2014 day, while scheduled to test a new type of rocket fuel – a plastic blend rather than the previous rubber-based blend – specifically designed to boost performance.
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Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed in the October 2014 accident after he failed to eject from the exploding craft. In spite of the fact that pilot Pete Siebold was able to eject from the craft and parachute to the ground, he still suffered serious injuries and was taken to a local hospital afterwards. An investigation determined pilot error “as well as a number of shortcomings in design and training,” which have been addressed. If you’re interested in taking a trip on board one of these super shuttles once they go online, you better bring your checkbook. About 700 people are already signed up to do so, ponying up as much as a quarter of a million dollars each for a seat on board, which will likely be the ride of their lives. Virgin Galactic also says that the “shift to commercial operations at New Mexico’s Spaceport America depends on how the test program goes, but Branson has said he intends to be on the first passenger flight.”