Last night at a ceremony in Mojave, California, Virgin Galactic unveiled it's new Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity. The new vessel for space tourism was introduced by Sir Richard Branson and christened by his grandchild with a splash of milk instead of the traditional champagne.
The new craft was named by Professor Stephen Hawking who in a recorded speech said, “I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.” Hawking is the only person who has been granted a free ticket from Branson and health permitting, he is signed up to one day fly aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.
The event was quite the spectacle as actor and pilot Harrison Ford even made an appearance. (Click the gallery to see Han back in the cockpit, and check out the video below for extended clips).
The new SpaceShipTwo is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s wholly-owned manufacturing arm, and it is the second vehicle of its design ever constructed.
The unveiling comes 16 months after its predecessor broke apart on Halloween 2014 during its fourth rocket-powered flight. The wreckage was found scattered along the Mojave Desert floor.
The crash was so devastating for Branson that he considered shutting down the program. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said that he was thinking “whether we should call it a day” when engineers, astronauts, and members of the public persuaded him to continue.
The cries to continue must have landed, as an inspired Branson unveiled the VSS Unity at the Final Assembly Integration Test Hangar (FAITH), Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing and testing base in Mojave.
According to a company release, development on the new vehicle actually started two years before the crash, with rigorous component testing. Now that it has been unveiled, the VSS Unity will begin integrated systems verification with The Spaceship Company, followed by ground and flight tests in Mojave, and ground and air exercises at its future home in Spaceport America, New Mexico.
SpaceShipTwo is based on Burt Rutan’s winner of the 2004 X-PRIZE, SpaceShipOne. This larger version of the craft is designed to take a two-pilot crew and up to six passengers to space.
Virgin Galactic’s space tourism angle is unique in that the experience consists of a rocket-powered ascent at nearly 1,200 meters per second, followed by the silence of space, a few minutes of “out-of-seat weightlessness,” and a decent view of the blue marble humanity calls home. After the crescendo, the craft falls back to earth and actually glides to a runway landing.
In a release, Hawking added, “A man with the vision and persistence to open up space flight for ordinary, earth-bound citizens, Richard Branson made it his mission to make space flight a reality for those intrepid enough to venture beyond the boundaries of the Earth’s atmosphere. I have had ALS for over fifty years now and while I have no fear of adventure, others do not always take the same view. If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship. Space exploration has already been a great unifier – we seem able to cooperate between nations in space in a way we can only envy on Earth. We are entering a new space age and I hope this will help to create a new unity.”
Though SpaceShipTwo made a splash with future space tourists, Professor Hawking and all other willing customers will remain grounded for the foreseeable future as the company has not yet released a projected timeline for passengers. Right now, the company seems committed to further testing.
Check out the video below, but remain patient through the corporate speak to get a good look at some interesting behind-the-scenes footage during the new craft’s design, manufacturing, and assembly processes.