Virgin Galactic on 19 February rolled out its latest SpaceShipTwo flight-test spacecraft - named Unity - nearly 16 months after pledging to continue the commercial spaceflight programme despite the tragic loss of its first prototype.
The new spacecraft will remain in ground testing after the roll-out event in preparation for a return to captive carry and powered rocket tests.
In a Mojave, California, ceremony that featured cameo appearances by actor and pilot Harrison Ford and youthful peace activist Malala Yousafzai, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson called the public debut of Unity “a great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose”.
Though nearly identical to the original SpaceShipTwo design, the Unity cockpit adds a mechanical inhibiting system to prevent the premature unlocking of the vehicle’s feathering system.
The first SpaceShipTwo crashed on 31 October 2014 when the co-pilot mistakenly that system at supersonic speed while still within the Earth’s atmosphere, causing an in-flight break-up.
Despite the personal and financial loss, Branson immediately pledged in the wake of the crash to continue to build the second SpaceShipTwo test vehicle, with the ultimate goal of launching a “spaceliner” to offer suborbital rides above the atmosphere.
A US National Transportation Safety Board report, after a nine-month investigation, blamed the crash on human error and a flawed pilot-vehicle-interface allowing such a single-point failure.
The crash also led Virgin Galatic to assume control of the flight-test programme, replacing SpaceShipTwo designer Scaled Composites.
Virgin Galactic’s original plan called for the start of commercial flights last year, but it now plans a thorough test programme with no announced end-date.
“When we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so,” the company says. “As a thousand-year-old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars. But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it.”