MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Today marks an exciting milestone in our shared quest to open space to change the world for good. For the first time, a spaceship built by our manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, and operated by us at Virgin Galactic has taken to the skies.
One unique aspect of our human spaceflight program is that—unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz, or other past systems—SpaceShipTwo doesn’t launch from a pad on the ground, but rather from under the wing of a carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo (our LauncherOne small satellite launch service uses a similar technique, launching from the wing of a 747). Today’s flight test was what we called a ‘captive carry’ flight, during which VSS Unity remained mated to our WhiteKnightTwo mothership (VMS Eve) for the entire flight from takeoff to landing.
In this configuration, WhiteKnightTwo serves as a veritable ‘flying wind tunnel,’ allowing the highest fidelity method of testing airflow around SpaceShipTwo while simultaneously testing how the spaceship performs when exposed to the frigid temperatures found at today’s maximum altitude of ~50,000 feet and above.
Like every flight of our human spaceflight system, both vehicles were crewed by our world-class pilots; today, VSS Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, while VMS Eve was flown by Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson along with flight test engineer Wes Persall. Throughout the entire 3 hour and 43 minute test flight, the flight crew as well our mission controllers and ground crews did the hard work of supporting a crewed test flight of a spaceflight system—great practice for our eventual flights to space.
With this flight in the books, our team will now analyze a mountain of flight data, learning what worked well and what could be improved for our next flight test. Only when that analysis is done, along with detailed vehicle inspections, some already-planned work, and potentially more captive carry flights, will we be ready to move into the next phase of test flight.
Our first flight test was an emotional and fulfilling moment for our hardworking team, even as we recognize how much work we have yet to do. An incredible amount of research, discovery, and iteration has already gone into this program—starting with SpaceShipOne’s initial proof of concept and progressing through the flight test of VSS Enterprise, testing of the raw materials that were used to build our new spaceship, component testing, and most recently the Integrated Ground Vehicle Testing of VSS Unity. The data resulting from today’s flight test will be added to that prior work, helping us make our next flight tests even more efficient, effective, and safe.