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Virgin Galactic, already onto SpaceShip III

In our last post, we did a little dive into the history of commercial space travel and introduced the dearMoon competition. Continuing on in our series on space tourism, this week we’re having a look at Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space venture. At the end of March 2021, Virgin Galactic introduced the VSS Imagine, the first of the SpaceShip III fleet. It has me wondering how we could already be on number three, given that they haven’t moved beyond test flights yet.

A little background

Back in 2005, Richard Branson (Virgin Group) and Burt Rutan (Scaled Composites) launched a joint venture called The Spaceship Company (TSC) to build spacecraft together, with Virgin Galactic as the customer. In 2012, Virgin Galactic became the sole owner of TSC. And in 2019, Virgin Galactic went public on the NYSE under the ticker SPCE, via a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia.

The project started after Scaled Composites built and launched SpaceShipOne as the first non-governmental crewed spacecraft. The first flight was on 21 June 2004, and it flew twice more that year. SpaceShipOne flew at least 100 km (62.5 mi, or the Karman line) above Earth each time, officially reaching space. The spacecraft was launched midair from the underside of an airplane dubbed White Knight, and flew for 24 minutes, with 3 minutes of weightlessness.

SpaceShipOne
Photo Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The project won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, and Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would partner with Scaled Composites to create a commercial spaceflight company. In December 2005, Virgin Galactic became the anchor tenant at Spaceport America in New Mexico, which claims the title of “first purpose-built commercial spaceport.”

Virgin Galactic

Together we open space to change the world for good” is the quote that welcomes visitors to Virgin Galactic’s website. As far as commercial space companies go, I find Virgin Galactic particularly interesting because of this explicit focus on the impact of spaceflight on Earth.

Our mission is to open up the transformational experience of human spaceflight to more people than ever before and in doing so, bring a planetary perspective to some of Earth’s greatest challenges. Our vision is to operate hundreds of flights each year from Spaceport America and other spaceport locations around the globe.

It’s an ambitious goal, but I appreciate their focus on the benefits for Earth. Space travel in itself is exciting, but I hope that cheaper access to space exploration will have positive benefits for this planet. Whether it’s due to the overview effect or new frontiers for scientific research or something else entirely.

I’m not going to delve into all the details of the company here, but Virgin Galactic’s website is great, and pretty inspiring if you want to learn more. They’ve also got details of prospective customers, if you want to read about their partnerships. For now, I’m mostly just curious about their spacecraft.

SpaceShip II

SpaceShip One was a pre-Virgin Galactic venture. So SpaceShip II is really the first one for Virgin Galactic. There have been two spacecraft under the SpaceShip II fleet: VSS Enterprise and VSS Unity.

VSS Enterprise is a sad story. In 2007, a fire broke out during a ground test and killed three employees. After a pause to allow for investigation of the incident, construction restarted and the spacecraft was unveiled in December 2009, about a year after White Knight Two (VMS Eve), the carrier plane, completed its first test flight. VSS Enterprise successfully completed three test flights between 2010 and 2013. Sadly, on the fourth test flight on 31 October 2014, the spacecraft broke apart due to a failure with the re-entry system, killing one pilot and injuring the other.

VSS Unity, named by Stephen Hawking, is the second spacecraft in the SpaceShip II fleet. The first glide flight was completed in December 2016, and the first powered flight was in April 2018. VSS Unity has not crossed the Karman Line, but it reached the US Air Force’s definition of space (80 kilometres or 50 miles) in December 2018 and February 2019.

SpaceShip II in air
Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity’s next test flight is scheduled for May 2021, after having been delayed from December.

SpaceShip III

On 30 March 2021, Virgin Galactic released the first model in the SpaceShip III fleet, VSS Imagine. The exterior of the spacecraft is made of a reflective material. According to the press release, apparently this material provides thermal protection and reflects “our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight.” I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it looks very cool. The first test flight is anticipated for summer 2021.

VSS Imagine, SpaceShip III
Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

VSS Inspire will be the next spacecraft in the fleet. The company expects to complete construction in 2022.

So to answer my question of why we’re on SpaceShip III already… it seems to come down to the long-term aim of eventually flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport. They’ll need quite a few spacecraft to achieve that goal. The design of SpaceShip III fleet isn’t too different from SpaceShip II, but they have optimised for a faster turnaround between flights.

Flying with Virgin

If you’ve got a cool $250k lying around, you can register your interest in flying on SpaceShip II (there’s a separate form if you really want to head to the International Space Station). To be fair, the price is actually substantially cheaper than the $20-50m people have paid to fly on the Soyuz missions. However, as of this writing, it will still be a little while before the company will actually send paying customers into space. The program is now expected to start in 2022.

For now, we can keep dreaming of spaceflight.

Have you signed up to fly with Virgin Galactic, or do you have other plans for space tourism? Let us know on Twitter or by email!

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