by Douglas Messier
Virgin Galactic plans to resume suborbital flight tests of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) VSS Unity in late October from Spaceport America in New Mexico after a 20-month long hiatus, according to a filing the company made with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The window for the first suborbital flight test from the company’s operating base opens on Oct. 22. VSS Unity‘s most recent suborbital flight, the second of the test program, was conducted on Feb. 22, 2019 from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin Galactic has said the flight will be the first of two remaining suborbital tests designed to clear the way for the start of commercial service during the first quarter of next year.
On the first flight, two pilots will take along a set of microgravity experiments in the passenger cabin, the company said.
The SEC filing mentioned plans for four-hour flights of WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mother ship on Oct. 1 and Oct. 7 to prepare pilots for the suborbital launch.
“These tests are designed to familiarize pilots with the WK2 aircraft, independent of its mated suborbital vehicle,” the document said. “Such flight will be conducted to train pilots on flight systems, test upgrades to the WK2 flights systems, and provide pilots with simulated SS2 approach flight profiles.”
The filing also said Virgin Galactic plans to carry out multiple captive carry, glide and powered flight tests involving SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.
On the second suborbital test, two pilots and four “mission specialists” will evaluate the passenger experience in the cabin.
Virgin Galactic’s Chief Space Officer George Whitesides is scheduled to be aboard one of the two remaining suborbital flight tests. He has a provision in his contract that says he will be aboard one of the first two powered flights from Spaceport America.
His contract also stipulates that his wife, Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, will fly on a suborbital flight. It’s unclear whether she will join her husband on a test flight or fly at a later date.
The couple reserved seats on SpaceShipTwo back in 2005. They intended it to be a honeymoon flight.
If the two remaining suborbital flight tests go well, Virgin Galactic plans to inaugurate commercial suborbital tourism flights with Founder Richard Branson aboard during the first quarter of 2021.
Commercial service will be more than 16 years in coming. Branson predicted Virgin Galactic would begin suborbital tourism flights as early as 2007 when he unveiled plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004.
Virgin Galactic has said that more than 600 people have reserved seats for suborbital flights. The company also reported last month that more than 700 people had put down refundable $1,000 deposits for tickets.
How much those tickets will cost is unclear. Seats went for $200,000 apiece when they first went on sale in 2005. Prices were raised to $250,000 following SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in April 2013.
Virgin Galactic said it will be raising prices for the next tranche of ticket holders, but it has not revealed by how much. The company is also creating a level of premium pricing for special flight such as reserving the entire vehicle.
The 20-month long gap in suborbital flight tests has never been fully explained.
SpaceShipTwo did not make any flight tests between its most recent suborbital launch in February 2019 and the COVID-19 stay at home orders issued by the states of California and New Mexico 13 months later. The orders and the pandemic have slowed testing.
The only flight during that period was a captive carry during which WhiteKnightTwo relocated SpaceShipTwo from California to New Mexico. That flight took place in February 2020, days prior to Virgin Galactic’s first quarterly earnings report.
Virgin Galactic officials have said they used the time to outfit VSS Unity‘s passenger cabin and make improvements to the vehicle for frequent commercial service.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress over the past five months. Virgin Galactic conducted a glide flight at Spaceport America on May 1, and a second flight in late June.