Virgin Galactic reveals new passenger spaceship

Feb 19, 2016, 6:40 PM EST
Source: Emergency_Vehicles/flickr

Virgin Galactic revealed a new 6-passenger spaceship, and Richard Branson offered a ride into space to Stephen Hawking.

Reuters reports:

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture unveiled a new passenger spacecraft on Friday, nearly 16 months after a fatal accident destroyed its sister ship during a test flight over California's Mojave Desert. The rollout of the gleaming craft, dubbed Virgin Space Ship Unity, marks Branson’s return to a race among rival billionaire entrepreneurs to develop a vehicle that can take thrill-seekers, researchers and commercial customers on short hops into space. "It's almost too good to be true," Branson said during a ceremony at the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles. "When I saw it for the first time, it brought an immediate lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. It was a completely overwhelming moment." Christened with a bottle of milk by Branson's year-old granddaughter, the ship was painted bright white on its front section, fading to gray and black toward the tail.

The tail itself was emblazoned with a blue image of a peering eye belonging to famed British physicist Stephen Hawking. Branson has already offered a flight into space to Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It was Hawking who suggested naming the ship Unity. "I have always dreamed of spaceflight, but for so many years I thought it was just that – a dream," Hawking said in a recorded message played at the space port. "If I am able to go, and if Richard will still take me, I will be proud to fly on this spaceship."

From outward appearances, the spacecraft is nearly identical to the one lost on Oct. 31, 2014. The accident was blamed on pilot error and oversights by Northrop Gumman Corp's (NOC.N) Scaled Composites division, which designed, built and tested the vehicle, known as SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic’s own manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, already was well into construction of the successor ship when the accident occurred. The biggest difference between the two is the addition of a pin to prevent a pilot from unlocking the ship’s rotating tail section too soon before descent, which is what triggered the breakup of the first spaceship, said Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides. The two-pilot, six-passenger spaceship is designed to reach altitudes of 62 miles (100 km) above the planet, providing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth set against the blackness of space. Nearly 700 people have signed up for rides, which cost $250,000 each.

CNN writes:

Here are some of the key things that Virgin Galactic have said will happen next:

• After the ground tests are done, SpaceShipTwo will be flown on the back of its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.

• Next comes glide testing: The craft flies like a glider from an altitude of 45,000+ feet (8 miles) while pilots test its handling.

• Rocket-powered test flights are next, each flight going a little higher and a little faster. When it crosses 100,000 feet (19 miles), SpaceShipTwo will be above 99% of the atmosphere and the pilots will experience weightlessness.

• When it reaches 50 miles (80 kilometers), the pilots will have met NASA and the U.S. Air Force's requirements for official astronaut status, and they will be recognized by the Virgin Galactic team and by the U.S. government as bonafide space travelers.