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Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking addresses Virgin Galactic customers at Cambridge University. (Credit: Richard Branson via YouTube)

More than a year after the first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was destroyed in a fatal test flight, Virgin Galactic says the second SpaceShipTwo is ready for its California rollout on Feb. 19 – and famed British physicist Stephen Hawking is invited.

Scores of other VIPs, officials and journalists are invited as well: The date for the rollout was disseminated in advisories that went out this afternoon.

Next month’s event, like the debut of the first SpaceShipTwo in 2009, will unfold at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It should mark a significant step in Virgin Galactic’s harder-than-expected effort to carry tourists as well as researchers and their payloads on suborbital trips to the edge of outer space.

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, says he has asked Hawking to be on hand if the 73-year-old British physicist is well enough to travel. That’s not a sure thing: Hawking is coping with a neurogenerative disease that has left him almost completely paralyzed, and he occasionally suffers from pneumonia.

In an interview with The Independent, a British newspaper, Branson said Hawking would “name the new spaceship.” The first SpaceShipTwo plane was named the VSS Enterprise (“VSS” stands for Virgin Spaceship). SpaceShipTwo’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership is called the VMS Eve, in honor of Eve Branson, the Virgin founder’s mother.

Nine years ago, Hawking took a zero-gravity flight on a specially equipped Boeing 727 jet, as a test run for a future Virgin Galactic flight. That flight produced no ill effects. “It was amazing,” he said afterward.

Even before that zero-G flight, Richard Branson said he was willing to grant Hawking’s wish to go into space as long as his doctors gave the OK. “I found myself with what I understand is the only free ticket for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight that Richard has ever handed out,” Hawking recalled during a recent meeting with Virgin Galactic customers at Cambridge University. “And knowing Richard a little, I can believe that’s true.”

If SpaceShipTwo’s development had proceeded as originally planned, Hawking might have had his free flight by now. But Virgin Galactic suffered a catastrophic setback in October 2014 when the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a test flight. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in a 50,000-foot fall. Pilot Pete Siebold suffered serious injuries but survived, thanks to his automatic parachute deployment system.

A federal investigation traced the tragedy’s cause to a variety of shortcomings, including Alsbury’s premature unlocking of the rocket plane’s feathered-wing braking system. Investigators said Alsbury pulled the unlocking lever while SpaceShipOne’s rocket was still in the midst of its rocket-powered ascent. The resulting aerodynamic forces tripped the wing mechanism and pulled the plane apart.

The report from the National Transportation Safety Board also cited lapses in training as well as inadequate safeguards in the wing-feathering system. Virgin Galactic says its teams are addressing those problems as they ramp up for testing the second SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2 was under construction even before the first model broke up, but after the accident, the safety lever system was redesigned to address the investigators’ concerns, Virgin Galactic says.

SpaceShipTwo
The first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Enterprise, prepares to light up its rocket engine during a test flight in January 2014. Months later, the craft was destroyed during a similar test. (Virgin Galactic photo)

During next month’s ceremonies, the rocket plane will be rolled out from Virgin Galactic’s Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar, or FAITH, for a glitzy photo op.

The rollout serves as a traditional prelude to what’s expected to be months of testing. The first tests will be performed on the ground. Then the plane will be carried up into the air, tucked beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. After rounds of captive-carry tests, SpaceShipTwo will go through an increasingly ambitious series of free-flying glides and rocket-powered flights.

Virgin Galactic says commercial operations will begin only after the plane has passed tests at outer-space altitudes. About 700 customers have signed up for suborbital spaceflights, paying as much as $250,000 per seat.

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