Richard Branson: Virgin Galactic’s Next Space Plane In February


An unfinished Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo in a hangar.

He’s coming back! One year ago Saturday, Virgin Galactic’s first space plane disintegrated in the skies above Mojave, California, destroying the vehicle, killing one pilot and leaving the other hospitalized.

In the wake of the tragic accident, it was unclear if the private spaceflight company with dreams of sending paying customers to suborbital space would survive, but now, 12 months later, Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, says the company is back on track.

“The last 12 months everyone’s worked incredibly hard,” Branson told Mashable in an interview. “We’re very much back on track now.” After the accident, engineers and others working with the company got to work continuing to build the second SpaceShipTwo, which should be ready to start testing by February 2016, according Branson.

“We’ll be unveiling the new spaceship,” said Branson. “And then we go into flight tests.”

On Oct. 31, 2014, SpaceShipTwo was taken high into the sky by its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. Once released, SpaceShipTwo’s engine kicked on, but shortly after it began flying under its own power, the ship broke apart.

Pilot Peter Siebold parachuted to safety, but co-pilot Mike Alsbury died in the crash. It was the fourth powered test flight of the vehicle. “Twelve months ago was obviously not a good day,” Branson said.

“For 48 hours [after the accident] I really wasn’t sure whether we should carry on,” he said. “But the 600 engineers and technicians, and the 800 astronauts, made it very clear they wanted to.” (Branson may have misspoken. There are about 700, not 800, people signed up to take a flight with Virgin Galactic.)

SpaceshipTwo crash

Virgin Galactic pilot Todd Ericson, in flight jacket, talks to NTSB investigators at the SpaceShipTwo crash site on Nov 1.

A subsequent investigation into the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that Alsbury unlocked the ship’s “feathering feature” — which is designed to help the ship fly back down to the ground — earlier than expected, leading to the breakup of this ship.

In the wake of the accident, the NTSB had recommendations for Scaled Composites, the company contracted to build the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. According to the investigation, Scaled did not do enough to make it clear that releasing the feathering mechanism could be dangerous before the craft hit a speed of about Mach 1.4.

Now, the building and testing of the suborbital craft is all being done in-house at Virgin Galactic (a handover that was in the works before the 2014 accident).

“I think we are in a much better place than we might have expected in the period immediately after the accident, and that’s because our team came together, our customers stuck with us, and honestly, we believe that the vehicle itself is sound,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO, told Mashable in an interview.

“So, that meant that we could go full speed ahead on finishing the build for the second spaceship,” he added. “Where we find ourselves is quite close to finishing that spaceship and putting it into the start of tests.”

Sir Richard Branson shows off the SpaceShipTwo in a Mojave, California, hangar on Monday

SpaceShipTwo is designed to bring six passengers up to suborbital space before bringing them back down to Earth. Eventually, the company hopes to have a fleet of space planes to fly passengers to suborbital space, allowing them to experience weightlessness and see Earth against the blackness of space.

About 700 people have already signed up to take a ride on SpaceShipTwo when it begins flying. While Branson would not give a firm date for the inaugural flight of SpaceShipTwo — with himself and his family among the passengers — he believes the company is on the right track. “That’s one thing I’m never going to be in a hurry on,” Branson said about the first flight. “We just have to see how it goes.”  Adapted: Mashable

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