Editor’s Note: We all wondered what would happen in the wake of the fatal accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo during its PF04 test flight. And while Sir Richard Branson‘s company underwent both very close scrutiny and harsh criticism following the death of Michael Alsbury and total loss of the craft, no one who knows Branson ever counted him out of the fight. Today marks a new day in Virgin Galactic’s ambition, and a strong testament to the strength of Branson’s conviction to finish what he started. Bravo!
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture unveiled a new passenger spacecraft on Friday, nearly 16 months after a fatal accident destroyed its sister ship during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert.
The rollout of the gleaming craft, dubbed Virgin Space Ship Unity, marks Branson’s return to a race among rival billionaire entrepreneurs to develop a vehicle that can take thrill-seekers, researchers and commercial customers on short hops into space.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” Branson said during a ceremony at the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles. “When I saw it for the first time, it brought an immediate lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. It was a completely overwhelming moment.”
Christened with a bottle of milk by Branson’s year-old granddaughter, the ship was painted bright white on its front section, fading to gray and black toward the tail.
The tail itself was emblazoned with a blue image of a peering eye belonging to famed British physicist Stephen Hawking.
Branson has already offered a flight into space to Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It was Hawking who suggested naming the ship Unity.
“I have always dreamed of spaceflight, but for so many years I thought it was just that – a dream,” Hawking said in a recorded message played at the space port. “If I am able to go, and if Richard will still take me, I will be proud to fly on this spaceship.”
From outward appearances, the spacecraft is nearly identical to the one lost on Oct. 31, 2014. The accident was blamed on pilot error and oversights by Northrop Gumman Corp’s (NOC.N) Scaled Composites division, which designed, built and tested the vehicle, known as SpaceShipTwo.
Virgin Galactic’s own manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, already was well into construction of the successor ship when the accident occurred.
The biggest difference between the two is the addition of a pin to prevent a pilot from unlocking the ship’s rotating tail section too soon before descent, which is what triggered the breakup of the first spaceship, said Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides.
The two-pilot, six-passenger spaceship is designed to reach altitudes of 62 miles (100 km) above the planet, providing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth set against the blackness of space. Nearly 700 people have signed up for rides, which cost $250,000 each.
Irene Klotz’s original article can be viewed here.
(Featured photo courtesy of Popular Science)