The world of aviation and space exploration is changing dramatically with private companies like Virgin Galactic leading the way.

Virgin successfully completed the first free flight of VSS Unity their newly designed and upgraded SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane December 3, 2016. The SS2 suborbital vehicle was carried up to 50,000 feet by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) and then released over the Mojave Desert. The vehicle landed safely after a ten minute free flight glide to the ground.

Today, VSS Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, with pilots Mike Masucci and Todd Ericsson as well as flight test engineer Dustin Mosher in WhiteKnightTwo. Over the course of the 1 hour 20 minute flight–particularly the 10 minutes of free flight for SpaceShipTwo–our pilots, mission controllers, and ground crew collected valuable data.

As expected, for this first gliding test flight, VSS Unity was flying light and slow, achieving a maximum speed of approximately Mach 0.6 while gliding home from an altitude of 50,000 feet. – Virgin Galactic

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Photo Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

October 31st, 2014 the original SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke up during flight while it was attempting a powered test. One of the two test pilots aboard the plane, 39-year-old Michael Alsbury was killed as a result of the incident. Pilot Peter Siebold was ejected from the space plane when it broke apart but safely parachuted to the ground. He was not injured.

It is reported that breakup of the SS2 occurred about two minutes after being dropped from the mothership and igniting its engine. Debris was scatter for about two miles along the desert floor.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) states the probable cause of the accident was due to the co-pilot prematurely unlocking the reentry feathering system.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites’ failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle. – NTSB

The goal of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo efforts is to routinely take paying customers to space. More than 500 people have signed up to purchase tickets at around $200,000 each including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry and Ashton Kutcher.

Featured Image Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

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