Richard Branson unveiled Virgin Galactic’s much anticipated second SpaceShipTwo at a ceremony in Mojave, CA, attended by his family, Virgin Galactic’s Founder Future Astronauts, stakeholders and partners. Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity via a recorded speech and said, “I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”
The space tourism project was dealt a major blow after an in-air explosion killed one of the company’s pilots on a test flight in 2014. Virgin’s CEO Richard Branson questioned continuing the project. But today, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert, the record label-turned-space travel agency is once again throwing its hat in the ring to make commercial civilian spaceflight a reality.
This new version of SpaceShipTwo is structurally almost identical to the shuttle that tragically failed, with a few upgrades. “Most of the changes that we made were planned before the accident,” said Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic. “With regard to the accident specifically, we have made one structural change to the vehicle, which is to add a mechanical inhibit to the featherlock system that would prevent that from ever being inadvertently opened at the wrong time in flight.” Such a safeguard could have protected against pilot error, which was the primary source of failure in the deadly 2014 test flight.
Scaled Composites didn’t factor human fallibility into their models. Pilot Michael Alsbury unlocked a feathering mechanism at the incorrect time, triggering a chain of events that caused SpaceShipTwo to break apart in flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Bureau’s investigation.
Virgin stands alone in its focus on space tourism for the ultra-wealthy (tickets are now going for $250,000 a pop), which makes their risky choices all the more questionable. Still, keeping in mind NASA spends upwards of $70 million with each astronaut it sends to space, Virgin’s tickets are relatively cheap, if not out of reach for almost everyone on the planet.
SOURCES – Virgin Galactic, Wired, Youtube