Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.
The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.
There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.
The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.
A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.
Virgin Galactic filed applications in November to trademark the names “Unity” and “VSS Unity”, giving a strong hint about the name of the second SpaceShipTwo the company plans to unveil on Feb. 19.
VSS stands for Virgin Space Ship. The first SpaceShipTwo, which was destroyed in a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, was named VSS Enterprise.
The applications identify launch services as the goods and services to be delivered under the “Unity” and “VSS Unity” trademarks.
Famed physicist Stephen Hawking is set to name the vehicle during the roll out ceremony next month if he is healthy enough to travel to Mojave, Calif. from his home in England. Virgin Founder Richard Branson will preside over the event.