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SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity and WhiteKnightTwo
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership are seen from below. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic sent its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, into the air for the first time today – tucked securely beneath its WhiteKnightTwo mothership for the entire three-hour-plus flight.

The captive-carry test flight, conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, came nearly two years after the fatal breakup of the first SpaceShipTwo during a flight test in October 2014. One of the test pilots, Michael Alsbury, died in that accident. The other pilot, Pete Siebold, was seriously injured.

It took months to investigate the accident, which was attributed to a variety of design and training shortcomings as well as pilot error. It took much longer to complete construction of VSS Unity, which incorporates design changes based on findings from the investigation.

The first SpaceShipTwo, dubbed VSS Enterprise, was built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites. This time around, Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing subsidiary, The SpaceShip Company, are in charge of development and testing. (The “VSS” stands for Virgin Space Ship.)

VSS Unity rolled out of its construction hangar in February, and since then it’s undergone extensive ground testing. During today’s first in-the-air test, two test pilots – Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay – sat in Unity’s cockpit while the plane remained firmly mated to Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane.

“In this configuration, WhiteKnightTwo serves as a veritable ‘flying wind tunnel,’ allowing the highest fidelity method of testing airflow around SpaceShipTwo while simultaneously testing how the spaceship performs when exposed to the frigid temperatures found at today’s maximum altitude of 50,000 feet and above,” Virgin Galactic said in a post-landing blog posting.

Today’s test flight lasted three hours and 43 minutes.

Virgin Galactic said the SpaceShipTwo team “will now analyze a mountain of flight data, learning what worked well and what could be improved for our next flight test.” Further captive-carry flights may be required.

Once the team is satisfied with the results, Virgin Galactic will proceed to glide flight tests. During those flights, WhiteKnightTwo will release Unity into the air to glide back to the Mojave runway. The next step would be rocket-powered free flights. The climax would come when pilots guide the craft to outer-space heights, in the range of 50 to 60-plus miles (80 to 100 kilometers).

After the completion of the test program in Mojave, Virgin Galactic would transition to commercial flights that would take passengers and payloads on suborbital space trips from Spaceport America in New Mexico. About 700 people, including celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Victoria Principal, have paid as much as $250,000 apiece to reserve a spot.

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said before the accident in 2014 that SpaceShipTwo was just months away from flying into space. After the accident, Branson and other executives have been much more circumspect about the development timeline.

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