Virgin Galactic has once again successfully tested the “feathering system” of its spaceship for the first time after a fatal crash in 2014 killed its test pilot. The space company has hailed the milestone as the next step towards sending passengers into space, with each paying $200,000 a ticket for the space ride. According to Virgin Galactic in an official statement, “We’ve learned enough from our past test flights to safely take the next step forward in our thorough test flight program. That step happened on a successful test flight conducted this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port, during which we tested VSS Unity’s ‘feather’ re-entry system in flight for the first time.”
The space company’s first craft was destroyed on October 31, 2014, during a test flight in the Mojave Desert. Pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in the accident and this dashed Virgin Galactic’s plans to start commercial operations as early as this year. The National Transportation Safety Board, after investigating the accident, determined that the co-pilot prematurely released the locks that pin the ship’s rotating tail section into place. The unique spaceship includes a pin that prevents the pilots from unlocking the tail section too early before aerodynamic forces have built up to keep the tail from rotating on its own. This test follows after extensive testing of the feather system on the ground.
Today’s test flight was the fourth glide flight, and the eighth overall flight, of VSS Unity, and the 227th flight of WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. Richard Branson recently announced plans to launch people into space in 2018, with the first test flights beginning this year. Branson mentioned that he would be “very disappointed” not to go into space himself in 2018 and hopes his space tourism program will be up and running in the same year. Last year Professor Stephen Hawking unveiled Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo craft, called VSS Unity. Hawking launched the spacecraft through a video message. He is hoping that if he is able to go and if Branson would take him, he would feel proud to fly to space for the very first time in the spaceship.
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The six-passenger, two-pilot winged space vehicle has been designed to take passengers on five-minute voyages into suborbital space, and can reach altitudes of around 62 miles, or 100 kilometers above the earth. It replaces the craft Virgin lost following the 2014 fatal crash. Virgin Galactic however, still has two other test spacecraft that do not have the feathered system. With a hefty price tag of $250,000, or around £175,000 per ticket, the space flight is obviously aimed at super rich thrill-seekers and celebrities, as well as researchers and commercial customers. Virgin Galactic’s own manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, already was well into construction of the second SpaceShipTwo of the fleet when the accident occurred.