Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity completed its fifth powered flight on Friday, setting new altitude and speed records while carrying a third crew member for the first time.
Richard Branson’s suborbital space plane hit Mach 3.04 as it soared to an altitude of 295,007 ft (89.9 km/55.87 miles) over the California’s Mojave Desert. Unity’s previous flight reached Mach 2.9 and an altitude of 82.72 km above the High Desert.
Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay was in command with Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci in the co-pilot’s seat. The company chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, was aboard to test out the astronaut experience. She was able to leave her seat in the six-passenger cabin and float around.
NMPolitics.net is reporting that there were about 40 layoffs from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company earlier this month as they prepare to begin commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
A Virgin Galactic spokesman confirmed the layoffs in a statement via email.
Recently we separated a small number of our team in order to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations following our successful recent spaceflight, and make room for new skill sets that we need to bring in over the course of this year. In total we separated around 40 people, less than 5% of our total workforce across Virgin Galactic and TSC. We are offering support to those impacted and sincerely thank them for their contributions, and wish them well for the future.
The news comes on the heels of a decision by SpaceX to lay off about 10 percent of its roughly 6,000 employees. Stratolaunch, which like Virgin Galactic is based in Mojave, announced last week that it was laying off about 50 employees as it down scaled plans for boosters to air launch from its massive aircraft.
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.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
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.