Virgin Galactic Cautiously Returns To Flight

After Richard Branson delivered some inspiring words from his seat aboard SpaceShipTwo Unity, he unbuckled himself and started to float around the vehicle’s cabin along with three other Virgin Galactic employees. Reaching an apogee of 86 kilometers (53 miles), the passengers enjoyed four minutes of weightlessness during the July 2021 flight that was live-streamed over the Internet to an audience of millions. After years of delays, SpaceShipTwo had finally demonstrated it was capable of taking paying customers to the edge of space. As far as victories go — it was pretty impressive.

Yet despite the spectacle, weeks and months went by without an announcement about when commercial flights of the world’s first “spaceline” would finally begin. Now, nearly two years after Branson’s flight, Unity has flown again. Except instead of carrying the first group of customers, it performed the sort of un-powered test flight that Virgin Galactic hasn’t performed since 2017. Clearly, something didn’t go to plan back then.

Richard Branson aboard Unity

The company is being as tight-lipped as ever, saying only that this test flight was necessary to “evaluate the performance of the spaceship…following the modification period.” The exact nature of these modifications is unclear, but for some hints, we could look at the New Yorker article from September 2021. It alleged that, unwilling to derail Branson’s highly publicized flight, Unity’s pilots decided not to abort their ascent despite several warning lights in the cockpit alerting them that the vehicle’s trajectory was deviating from the norm. Virgin Galactic later denied their characterization of the event, but the fact remains that Unity did leave its designated airspace during the flight, and that the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the spacecraft until an investigation into the mishap could be completed.

The FAA cleared Virgin Galactic to resume flights shortly after, but by December, they had new problems. Investors decided to pursue legal action against the company, claiming that Unity and her sister ship Eve were closer to proof-of-concept prototypes than the commercially sustainable vehicles they were lead to believe. According to an article by The Guardian, a Virgin Galactic engineer was even on record saying that wings of the vehicles were covered with so many stress fractures that they looked like “cracked eggshells” on close inspection.

By this point, Virgin Galactic had already announced their fleet would enter into an “extended maintenance period” to address a “possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials.” At the time the company said it expected this period to last until Q4 of 2022, after which they would kick off the start of commercial service with a research mission paid for by the Italian Air Force. Obviously those dates slipped, with the most recent official statements indicating they hope to fly the Italian Air Force’s mission in Q2 of this year.

Wreckage of Virgin Galactic’s Enterprise in 2014.

It’s not hard to imagine that the issues found during and immediately after Branson’s July 2021 flight required more time than anticipated to address. Even still, the modifications will only be a stopgap. The company has previously admitted that the current version of their spacecraft won’t be able to hit the flight cadence necessary for long-term commercial service, and that a more capable variant of the spaceplane will need to be developed if they are going to achieve weekly flights.

We’ve reported previously on Virgin Galactic’s slow and painful progress towards commercial service. The company has gone through years of delays, several redesigns, and the tragic loss of one of its test pilots in 2014 to get where they are now. In many ways, it’s remarkable they’ve managed to keep pushing ahead as long as they have. It’s still unclear if there’s a viable future for this sort of suborbital space tourism, but with the blood and tears it’s taken to get them this far, we’d say Virgin Galactic deserves to give it a shot.

32 thoughts on “Virgin Galactic Cautiously Returns To Flight

          1. “Bill Gates has done more ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶ ̶ to humanity than most people would accomplish in dozens of lifetimes.”

            There. Fixed it for you

          2. Hey Observer, are you unaware of his foundation, or did you fall for one of those hoaxes that allege that Gates is trying to depopulate the earth, or inject everyone with 5G wireless chips?

  1. There were also 3 people killed and 3 critically injured at Scaled Composites testing the rocket motor for the Space Ship 2. A really heavy price for what is essentially a joy ride.

  2. >In many ways, it’s remarkable they’ve managed to keep pushing ahead as long as they have.
    It’s remarkable (and sad) that they are people able to spend and spending so much money on basically nonsense. Commercial space tourism? Yeah, i am fine with that, it is absolutely useless, will (probably) produce a lot of CO2 and other stuff and so on… I mean space stuff for science is one thing that i am already not convinced it is really usefull, but TOURISM???

    1. Slap a massive regulatory green TAX on them that they need to absorb twice as much greenhouse gases than the produce with each flight and every – problem solved. It is not like the people seeing 4 minutes in space can’t afford it.

      1. Sorry this isn’t Germany we won’t be shutting down wind farms so coal mines can expand due to power issues from shutting down nuclear plants then taxing our citizens for driving to work.

        But in all seriousness, they would just move. Any excessive tax leads to that. Why people keep having to learn this lesson is beyond me. There’s a reason LA mansions tanked in value recently.

        1. I understand that this was not your point, but I live in germany and no windfarm was taken down because of an expanding coal mine.
          There is a rumor that windmills are taken of the grid to sell more power from coal plants which is also not true.

          However some windmills are turned off sometimes because our grid can not handle that much power. Why do we do not extend the grid? That is another stupid discussion ^^.

          Second. The last nuclear power plants produced 3% of the total power used in germany. If we would have problems compensating that we would have much bigger problems.

  3. Long ago I was interested in the goings of the Anasari X-prize, and I liked the idea of private companies going to space. After I dusted of some old high school physics my interest already quickly diminished though.

    ISS has an altitude of just over 400 km, and at that altitude atmospheric drag is still high enough to let it’s orbit decay 2km per month

    So to get 1kg of mass at that altitude you need m*g*h = 1*9.8*4e5 = 4MJ

    It also needs about 93 minutes for an orbit (they just can’t do it in 80 minutes, Sorry Jules), and it’s orbital speed is 9.66km/s, and that is a kinetic energy of 0.5* 1 *pow(9.66e3, 2) = 47MJ

    So back then, the Anasari prize was for a quarter of the altitude to reach a minimum viable orbit, and to reach orbit you need to spend an extra order of magnitude of energy to get up to speed and prevent you from falling right down again.

    And that leads me to pretty much the same conclusion as the other comments here. The whole thing is not much more then a roller coaster ride for the insanely rich. They probably don’t even get much press attention anymore. To get that, you need to make fireworks out of really big rockets such as that other billionaire does these days.

    1. This. Reading comments on articles like this (and often reading such articles themselfs if they are not from technically oriented media like HaD or Ars) where they talk about ‘space race of billionares’ leaves me thinking that 99% commenters don’t understand the difference between these joyrides and normal orbital rockets and crafts.
      These joyrides are pure BS.. not even an enginneering stepping stone to orbital ones. RB’s Virgin Orbit (which is currently in bakrupcy because it cannot compete with SX and RocketLab which together already put one well estabilished air launch orbital provider out of business) has no commonality with Virgin Galactic whatsoever.

      1. PS: I know that Besos’s spacephallus has kinda normal rocket engine which could be considered a stepping stone to a bigger one but BlueOrigin existed longer than SpaceX and also longer than RocketLab! (if I’m not mistaken) and BlueOrigin haven’t flown neither an orbital rocket nor their engines on one yet (looking at you ULA’s Vulcan) while both SX and RocketLab developed from zero neverhead of partialy reusable launch systems (RL has already started to reuse components from splashed down boosters and are seaproofing new design iterations of their rockets).
        So I would say no stepping stone would have helped and won’t help BO.

  4. A lot of sarcastic and jealuos posts. I have one as well.
    Don’t worry mindless 9 to 5 zombies. The technology being developed will benefit generations beyond your short lives.

    1. They are not developing any useful technology here. They are just going straight up and down. We already have technology to do that, it’s called a balloon.

  5. HAD seems to be populated with envious, jealous, anti-capitalist haters.

    Since when did being “rich” become a topic of disdain ?
    I would submit that (unlike the kardashians), Branson is a “self made” billionaire, who has contributed to humanity’s progress (like the other billionaire you jealous miscreants hate on – Mr Musk).

    Y’all should read up on Branson’s life. The man is an entrepreneur from a young age, who never quit when things went sideways.

    Jealousy, one of the seven deadly sins.
    James 4:2-3
    You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.

  6. The painful saga of Virgin Galactic continues. Space is hard, but they should figured out what was going on with the wings / fuselage a while ago. I don’t think they will make it if they keep going like this.

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