MOJAVE, Calif. — SpaceShipTwo is back.
Virgin Galactic rolled out the second-ever SpaceShipTwo today (Feb. 19) here at the Mojave Air & Space Port, a facility that lies in the shadow of desert mountains about 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of Los Angeles. The unveiling ceremony featured blaring music, deep blue lighting, cocktails and the company's founder, Sir Richard Branson, riding atop the SUV that towed the vehicle into view. The voice of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking boomed over a loudspeaker and revealed the brand-new suborbital commercial vehicle's name — VSS (for Virgin Spaceship) Unity.
Today's big event comes more than 15 months after the loss of the original SpaceShipTwo, which was called VSS Enterprise. Enterprise broke apart during a test flight on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold. [Gallery: Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity Rolls Out]
At a press conference held just prior to the unveiling, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told reporters, "This is a really big deal for the team, who's made it through a tough time and who are now really excited about the future. So it's a great time for the company."
The VSS Unity was christened by Branson's 1-year-old granddaughter, Eva-Deia. With the help of a few adults, the tot broke a bottle of milk over the ship's front hull. Today (Feb. 19) is also Eva-Deia's birthday, and following the christening, the entire crowd sang "Happy Birthday" —led by famed English singer Sarah Brightman.
The new SpaceShipTwo was always meant to be an addition to Virgin Galactic's fleet, not a replacement for VSS Enterprise. Construction of the new vehicle was a multiyear affair; Unity was about 65 percent complete at the time of the tragic Enterprise accident, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.
Persevering through tragedy
Enterprise broke apart because Alsbury deployed the space plane's "feathering" re-entry system — twin tail booms that rotate upward to increase drag and stability during descent — too early, an investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined.
Investigators found that Scaled Composites, the Mojave-based aerospace company that built VSS Enterprise for Virgin Galactic, "set the stage" for the crash through its "failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a hearing about the accident last July.
VSS Unity was built by The Spaceship Co., a Mojave-based subsidiary of Virgin Galactic. The freshly christened vehicle features safeguards that will prevent a repeat of the chain of events that caused the destruction of Enterprise, Virgin representatives have said.
SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers, as well as two pilots, on brief sojourns to suborbital space. During operational flights — which will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico — the space plane will be carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) by an airplane called WhiteKnightTwo, and then dropped.
At that point, SpaceShipTwo's onboard rocket motor will fire up, blasting the vehicle up to a minimum of 62 miles (100 km) above Earth's surface — the traditionally accepted boundary where outer space begins.
Passengers will get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness, Virgin Galactic representatives say. SpaceShipTwo will then glide back down for a runway landing, touching down about 2.5 hours after WhiteKnightTwo carried it aloft.
Tickets to ride the space plane currently cost $250,000, and hundreds of people have already put down deposits to reserve a seat. In fact, the number of SpaceShipTwo customers already exceeds 552, which is the total number of people who have ever been to space, company representatives have said.
Virgin Galactic isn't the only company developing a vehicle for suborbital space tourism and research. XCOR Aerospace, for example, is building a one-passenger rocket plane called Lynx; tickets to ride the vehicle currently cost $150,000. And Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is working on a reusable rocket/capsule system called New Shepard for suborbital flight. [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]
Long road ahead
The new SpaceShipTwo isn't yet ready to fly passengers, or even get off the ground.
"Indeed, our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts," Virgin Galactic representatives said in a statement. "We already know these things work individually, but one can't simply assume they will all work together — that must be tested and verified. We'll do so quickly, but we won't cut corners."
Virgin Galactic's new space plane will then take to the skies on "captive-carry" flights, during which it stays attached to WhiteKnightTwo. After that, the craft will fly freely during several unpowered "glide flights" before graduating to rocket-powered test flights.
It's not clear how long this test program will take. VSS Enterprise, for what it's worth, made its first captive-carry flight in March 2010, and executed a total of 55 successful test flights before that fateful day in October 2014. (The crash occurred during Enterprise's fourth rocket-powered flight.)
The trial regime will not be as extensive or as lengthy for VSS Unity, since it's so similar to Enterprise, whose flights generated a wealth of data.
"By and large, if you looked at serial number one and serial number two under the hood, you couldn't tell the difference," said Doug Shane, president of The Spaceship Co., during the press conference preceding the rollout, referring to Enterprise and Unity. "They're very, very similar vehicles."
But Virgin Galactic is not rushing to meet any preconceived timetable.
"When we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so," company representatives said in the same statement. "This isn't a race. We have shown we are committed to being thorough in our testing: it is the right thing to do, and it is essential to our ultimate success."
Today's rollout milestone is a testament to Virgin Galactic's perserverance and commitment, and it bodes well for the future of private spaceflight, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
"It's a great thing for the industry, [showing] that we can bounce back from hardships," Stallmer told Space.com in an interview Wednesday (Feb. 17). "It's just a great step forward."