Breaking Down Virgin Galactic’s Latest Flight Test

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me….

— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”

— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?

Ready? Let’s go!

The Flight

VSS Unity during its first suborbital flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Vehicles: VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo), VMS Eve (WhiteKnightTwo)
Type: VSS Unity suborbital flight test
Purpose: Test spacecraft modifications, carry three NASA-sponsored microgravity experiments
Altitude Reached: 55.45 miles (89.2 km)
Top Speed: Mach 3
VSS Unity Crew: C.J. Sturckow, David Mackay
VSS Eve Crew: Kelly Latimer, Michael Masucci
Location: Spaceport America, New Mexico

This was VSS Unity‘s first powered flight in 27 months, the sixth powered flight of the spacecraft’s test flight program, and the third to exceed the 50-mile (80.4 km) that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers to be the boundary of space. The internationally recognized boundary of space, known as the Karman line, is at 100 km (62.1 miles). (About which more later.)

It was the 10th powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo test program. The other tests were conducted by VSS Enterprise, which broke up during its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014. None of VSS Enterprise‘s flights reached suborbital space; the highest altitude achieved was 72,000 feet.

Virgin Galactic said the flight accomplished the following technical objectives:

  • carried revenue-generating scientific research experiments as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program;
  • collected data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required to obtain a commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license to fly spaceflight participants from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); and,
  • tested the spaceship’s upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls, and validated reductions in electromagnetic interference (EMI), which caused an in-flight launch abort last December by rebooting a computer.

Engineers are now evaluating flight data and conducting maintenance checks on VSS Unity and VMS Eve before taking the next step in the test program.

What’s Next

SpaceShipTwo cabin interior. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The test on Saturday was the first of four planned flights that Virgin Galactic hopes will allow it to complete a test program that began in October 2010 with the first captive carry flight of VSS Enterprise.

Company officials have announced the following three flight tests, in order:

  • four employees will evaluate the cabin experience for future passengers;
  • Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson will conduct his own evaluation of the passenger experience; and
  • the Italian Air Force officers to evaluate how the vehicle can be used to train future astronauts and for conducting human-tended experiments.

Branson and the seven others will be aboard the flights as mission specialists. Virgin Galactic has not yet received approval from the FAA to begin flying passengers, who will be officially known as spaceflight participants but whom Virgin Galactic will call astronauts.

Company officials have said the three remaining flight tests could be completed by late summer or early fall if all goes well. That would require a quicker turnaround than the company has demonstrated in the past. The time between VSS Unity‘s first and second suborbital flights in December 2018 and February 2019 was 72 days.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Imagine (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

After flight tests are completed, VSS Unity and its VMS Eve mother ship would spend about four months undergoing maintenance and upgrades to prepare for commercial service. Then VSS Unity would start carrying spaceflight participants in early 2022. It would be joined by the newest SpaceShipTwo, VSS Imagine, which will begin flight tests later this year.

If the schedule holds, tourism flights will begin more than than 17 years after Branson unveiled plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004. The British billionaire originally predicted service would start in 2007.

The Rivalry

The schedule would put Virgin Galactic about six months behind rival Blue Origin in flying spaceflight participants. Jeff Bezos’ company is auctioning off a ticket to fly on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, which will make its first flight with people aboard on July 20. The auction winner will be joined by five company employees.

Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers simulates astronaut ingress on New Shepard Mission NS-15. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Both companies have been nonchalant in public about who flies spaceflight participants first. They have denied being in a race and said they will fly customers when they are ready. The reality behind the scenes might be different. Virgin Galactic, for example, has advertised itself as the world’s first “spaceline.” Does Branson really want to risk losing that title to Bezos?

A possible solution would be for Virgin Galactic to obtain a FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license to fly passengers sooner rather than later. The company could potentially fly Branson as a spaceflight participant rather than as a mission specialist before the New Shepard launch on July 20. That would require turning around VSS Unity and VMS Eve in record time. Virgin Galactic would also need to delay the test flight with four people aboard.

Richard Branson wears an “unpressurized spacesuit,” which the rest of the industry calls a flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

You might ask, what’s the big deal? Why would two billionaires be vying for bragging rights to who flies the first spaceflight participant on a brief suborbital flight where they will experience only three or four minutes of weightlessness? Especially with SpaceX and the Russians about to send a gaggle of paying passengers into orbit in the next eight months. Is it really that important?

Yes. Yes, it is. Bragging rights like that translate into ticket sales, the deed goes into the record books, and the company mentions it ad nauseum in all the PR stuff that gets churned out about reaching the stars. It’s also a matter of pride, for the billionaire founders and the companies’ employees.

Jeff Bezos

Many observers are mystified as to why there’s even a close race at this point. Virgin Galactic is only now on the verge of flying passengers due to years of technical setbacks and accidents. As far as anyone outside the company can tell, New Shepard’s 15 uncrewed suborbital flights have gone pretty smoothly. The system seems to have been mature enough to conduct flights with people aboard for quite some time.

In fact, Blue Origin promised just such flights for years, only to push back the target date. It’s not entirely clear what has held up crewed flights. The COVID-19 certainly had an impact. But, SpaceX and Roscosmos have managed to launch crews to orbit in spite of the health restrictions.

Beating Branson to the punch might improve morale at Blue Origin, which is on a losing streak. The company was beaten out by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for lucrative contracts to launch U.S. national security payloads. Blue Origin also lost to SpaceX in the competition to build a lander to return astronauts to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program. There has been increasing criticism that Blue Origin has become a slow moving, bureaucratic Old Space company.

Even if Virgin Galactic flies a spaceflight participant first, there would be an argument about whether the company actually flew to space unless VSS Unity can improve its performance. The highest the rocket plane has ever flown is 89.92 km (55.87 miles), which is well below 100 km (62.1 miles). It’s not clear whether VSS Unity can reach the Karman line as it is currently configured.

In a dig at the competition, Bezos has noted that New Shepard has consistently exceeded 100 km, erasing any doubt that it has reached space. Burt Rutan — whose company, Scaled Composites, designed and built VMS Eve and the first SpaceShipTwo — said Virgin Galactic hadn’t flown to space yet due to not reaching Karman line at an event in Mojave a few years back.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

According to the New Shepard page on Wikipedia, 12 capsules have made it past 100 km, one reached 98.269 km (61.06 miles), and another flew to 93.5 km (58.1 miles). On another flight, a capsule was used for a planned low-altitude, in-flight abort, but its booster — which was expected to explode when the capsule fired its escape system– survived and flew up to an altitude 93.7 km (58.23 miles).

By the FAA’s standard of 50 miles (80.4 km), all of Blue Origin’s tests qualified as suborbital flights. None of them had people on board. By contrast, Virgin Galactic has conducted three spaceflights above 50 miles with crew members,

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which is the keeper of aviation and space records, announced in late 2018 that it was reevaluating the 100-km boundary of space to determine whether it should be lowered. That status of that review is not clear.

The Long Gap

So, why was there a 27-month gap in VSS Unity‘s powered flights? In brief: technical setbacks and a near fatal accident.

VSS Unity conducted the program’s first two suborbital flights on Dec. 13, 2018, and Feb. 22, 2019. Virgin Galactic then took the ship out of flight test for 13 months, except for a captive carry beneath VMS Eve to relocate the vehicle from California to New Mexico. The company said it needed time to outfit the passenger cabin and make modifications to the ship to prepare it for frequent commercial flights. That was true, but only to an extent.

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne after a near-fatal flight test on Feb. 22, 2019. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

What the company didn’t say is that VSS Unity was broken and couldn’t fly on its own. The ship suffered severe damage to its horizontal stabilizers during the Feb. 2019 flight. Technicians had made a serious error on the ground by covering over holes designed to vent hot air from the stabilizers. They also missed a bag of screws taped inside.

Virgin Galactic’s then-vice president of safety, Todd Ericson, was amazed the spacecraft didn’t crash and kill its three-member crew. He wanted to fire the head of maintenance, but CEO George Whitesides refused.

Todd Ericson (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Ericson later stepped down from the safety position, having lost confidence in the company’s safety culture. He would later leave the company, but only after Virgin Galactic had gone public later in the year.

Virgin Galactic hired an outside expert to review the safety culture and Virgin Galactic’s operations. The experts report has never been released.

The stabilizers, which control the vehicle in flight, had to be redesigned and then tested before SpaceShipTwo could attempt another suborbital test. That took a while.

While engineers were addressing that problem, Virgin Galactic set about finding more money to fill its dwindling coffers. The solution was to merge with Social Capital Hedosophia, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). A SPAC is an investment vehicle that is already publicly traded whose sole purpose is to take another company public.

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

The fact that VSS Unity was broken was never disclosed to Social Capital shareholders who approved the merger, or to investors who bought the stock after the merged companies went public under Virgin Galactic’s name on the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 28, 2019.

The source who revealed the near-fatal February 2019 flight to Parabolic Arc questioned whether withholding that information from shareholders was legal under securities laws. A number of law firms have launched investigations into Virgin Galactic recently. Their primary focus seems to be the steep drop in the company’s stock price earlier this year. (It has rebounded sharply since the flight test.) But, perhaps they will carefully review the company’s public disclosures regarding the condition of VSS Unity.

After being grounded for more than 13 months, VSS Unity conducted a glide flight on May 1, 2020. Another glide test followed on June 25. VSS Unity was then grounded for more than five months for additional modifications, during which time Virgin Galactic was also dealing with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Dec. 13, 2020, VSS Unity was finally ready to fly above 50 miles for the first time in nearly 22 months. But, electromagnetic interference (EMI) caused a newly upgraded computer to reboot just as the hybrid motor began to fire. The engine shut down, and the pilots safely aborted to a runway landing.

The flight test was rescheduled for three months later in February 2021. Then Virgin Galactic announced that it had not dealt with all the potential EMI issues, so the flight was delayed another two months to May.

WhiteKnightTwo (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

As the opening of the flight window approached, Virgin Galactic announced it had identified another potential source of delay: a “wear and tear” issue on its aging VMS Eve mother ship that required additional time to analyze.

The question for engineers was whether the problem in the vehicle’s tail had to be addressed now or could wait for a planned maintenance period in the fall. After inspection, VMS Eve was cleared for the flight on Saturday.

Virgin Galactic said the problem lay in VMS Eve‘s tail. A source who requested anonymity said the horizontal stabilizers were prone to cracking due to the composite material having too much resin in it when the stabilizers were manufactured by Scaled Composites in 2008.

Engineers found cracks in VMS Eve as early as 2014. Sources who requested anonymity have described the 13-year old mother ship, as “falling apart” with various structural issues that include delamination of composites. They also said VSS Unity is heavier than VMS Eve‘s spacecraft mount was originally designed to handle.

Virgin Galactic officials have said that the WhiteKnightTwo has fewer than 300 flights and not very many flight hours compared to other aircraft. They also say that the carbon composites are stronger than aluminum used in many airplanes. All that is true, but it doesn’t tell the full story.

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson in July 2008. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Scaled Composites built VMS Eve as a proof of concept vehicle, a prototype for more advanced mother ships that still haven’t been built. The mother ship has a unique dual fuselage design and carries a heavy spacecraft suspended between them. The aircraft experiences unusual stresses when it releases VSS Unity at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, which is higher than most airliners fly.

It looks like it will be a while before Virgin Galactic builds another WhiteKnightTwo. Company officials say a second carrier aircraft is only in the design stage. That likely indicates engineers have identified modifications they want to make based on their experience with VMS Eve.

Keeping the next mother ship in the design phase limits expenditures at a time when the company is bleeding money and generating little revenue. The company suffered a net loss of $130 million for the first quarter of 2021.

For the time being, Virgin Galactic is much more focused on building and testing spaceships that will bring in revenues once commercial service begins. VSS Imagine will begin flight tests later this year. The company has another spacecraft in an advanced stage of construction.