Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Arrives in New Mexico

 In GDI, Air, Space, Environment

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehi­cle, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo car­ri­er air­craft, arrives at Spaceport America in New Mexico Feb. 13. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo sub­or­bital space­plane arrived at the company’s space­port in New Mexico Feb. 13, ready for a final series of test flights before the com­pa­ny starts com­mer­cial oper­a­tions.

The vehi­cle, named VSS Unity, flew from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to Spaceport America in south­ern New Mexico attached to its WhiteKnightTwo car­ri­er air­craft. The com­pa­ny used the flight to per­form envi­ron­men­tal eval­u­a­tions of the vehi­cle and also con­duct pilot train­ing and famil­iar­iza­tion.

The long-await­ed trans­fer of VSS Unity from California to New Mexico marks the begin­ning of the final stage of flight tests of the vehi­cle. Virgin said it plans to per­form a series cap­tive carry flights, where SpaceShipTwo remains attached to WhiteKnightTwo, and glide flights, where SpaceShipTwo is released and glides back to the space­port. Those will be fol­lowed by an unspec­i­fied number of pow­ered test flights.

“We still have sig­nif­i­cant work ahead, but we are grate­ful to all our team­mates who have made this day a real­i­ty,” George Whitesides, chief exec­u­tive of Virgin Galactic, said in a state­ment about the move of SpaceShipTwo to New Mexico.

VSS Unity made its last pow­ered flight nearly a year ago. Since then Virgin Galactic has been making upgrades to the vehi­cle, includ­ing out­fit­ting its cabin for com­mer­cial flights.

At the 23rd Commercial Space Transportation Conference here in January, com­pa­ny offi­cials pro­vid­ed few sched­ule updates about the upcom­ing test­ing pro­gram, beyond saying that SpaceShipTwo would be trans­port­ed to New Mexico “soon.”

Beth Moses, chief astro­naut instruc­tor at Virgin Galactic and part of the crew of the last pow­ered flight of the vehi­cle, said at the con­fer­ence one thing that will be tested on upcom­ing flights is how the cabin works with sev­er­al people in it. “We need to increase our pas­sen­ger den­si­ty,” she said. “We’re hoping to refine the bespoke train­ing. With four people in the cabin, how does it work out?”

In past investor pre­sen­ta­tions filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Virgin Galactic has pro­ject­ed begin­ning com­mer­cial ser­vice by June. The com­pa­ny has not pro­vid­ed a recent update to those plans, but may do so when the pub­licly traded com­pa­ny releas­es its fourth quar­ter and full year finan­cial results Feb. 25.

Virgin Galactic start­ed trad­ing on the New York Stock Exchange in October after com­plet­ing a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia, a spe­cial-pur­pose acqui­si­tion com­pa­ny that was already traded on that exchange. Virgin’s stock has, in recent weeks, soared to record highs, clos­ing Feb. 13 at $23.66 a share, rough­ly double the price when it debuted on the exchange in October.

The arrival of SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America was also a mile­stone for the state of New Mexico, which announced plans to devel­op the space­port in 2005 and has waited patient­ly through the vehicle’s extend­ed devel­op­ment pro­gram. While the runway and main ter­mi­nal build­ing were com­plet­ed nearly a decade ago, Virgin Galactic com­plet­ed the inte­ri­or of the ter­mi­nal build­ing and declared it oper­a­tional­ly ready only in August.

State offi­cials see Virgin Galactic as an anchor for a grow­ing space indus­try in the area, which they have dubbed “Space Valley.” Exos Aerospace and Up Aerospace have per­formed sub­or­bital ver­ti­cal launch­es from the space­port, while SpinLaunch, a secre­tive com­pa­ny work­ing on an alter­na­tive launch tech­nol­o­gy, is devel­op­ing a test site there.

“Today marks anoth­er step closer: We will have a gen­uine Space Valley in Southern New Mexico, a hotbed of inno­va­tion and achieve­ment and space tourism devel­op­ment,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a state­ment.

Source: SpaceNews

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