Branson Ramps Up SpaceShipTwo Hype, Again; Test Flight Coming Soon

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12 after Unity’s first glide flight in December 2016. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.

CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.

And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.

We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space  on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)

Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.

It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.

After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.

Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.

SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.

Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.