March 10, 2016

Update from Mojave: Testing Testing 1-2-3

VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic's resusable spaceplane, sits outside a hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Also visible is the tail of WhiteKnightTwo, the systems carrier aircraft.
Three weeks ago, we unveiled our new spaceship, VSS Unity. As we wrote in the run-up to that unveiling, what we celebrated then was the transition to a new phase of work where, having already spent years testing its pieces and subsystems, we now test Unity as a completed vehicle.

Virgin companies are known as customer champions and our vision — to open space for the world — is consistent with our brand purpose. We were honored to celebrate the rollout milestone with our customers, investors, and families—without whom we couldn’t achieve our goals. We even named our new vehicle Unity in part because we are all in this together. So instead of doing our development work in secret, we want to continue to be open in our pursuit of that goal and share our development journey with you. In that spirit, here is what’s coming up next for our human spaceflight program.

We started a rigorous testing campaign known as Integrated Vehicle Ground Testing. This includes testing the environmental controls within the cabin, the electrical systems, the rudders and elevons, the landing gear, the feather system, the reaction control system (which allows the vehicle to maneuver itself in space), the systems that mate SpaceShipTwo to her carrier aircraft, and everything else. To the greatest extent possible, we test in flight-like environments. For example, instead of just testing our feather lock actuators at room temperature, we use liquid nitrogen to chill them down to the temperatures they will experience when performing at high altitude. For every test, we start by mimicking the performance that will be expected of the system we are testing during a real flight; and then we push beyond that point to make sure we’ve got extra margin.

Obviously we can’t test our rocket motor inside of our spaceship while she is sitting on the ground in the hangar. So, we’ve built a flight-like test stand that uses tanks, valves, controllers, and structures identical to what we have on the real vehicle. Because SpaceShipTwo fires its motor while the vehicle is both in a horizontal and in a vertical position, we’ve got different stands that allow us to test in those two positions. All told, 72 full scale SpaceShipTwo motors have been tested throughout the course of the program. Adding in cold flow tests and multiple firings of some motors, there have been nearly one hundred firings of our full-scale propulsion system, as well as numerous subscale test firings dating back to the similar motor design for the SpaceShipOne program. Developing our rocket propulsion system has certainly been one of the hardest parts of this program, but through dedication and hard work, we now have a very well characterized rocket motor.

In parallel to all this testing, we have other work to do to prepare ourselves to run the world’s first commercial spaceline. After all, it’s not just the vehicles that need to be ready, our team must also be prepared to deliver safe flights to space with signature Virgin service. Our mission control needs to run like clockwork in both Mojave and in New Mexico, our cabin designers have to put the finishing touches on a spaceship interior that will delight and surprise our astronauts, our crew of space wrenches must keep our air and space vehicles in tip-top shape, and our trainers must be ready to help our future astronauts from nearly sixty nations around the planet prepare for a high-energy experience that for many is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
All of this is hard work, and all of it takes time. All of it takes testing. There is no guarantee that things will work perfectly the first time they are tested; in fact, one is much better off assuming the opposite. Our job now is not to ensure that we never fail, for the only way to do that would be to do nothing, and accept our world for what it is without any hope of ever making it better. Instead, our job is to make sure that our failures are safe failures, and that every test—whether completely successful or not—teaches us something that makes the next test better.

Rocket motor firings aside, some of these tests on the road to Unity’s first flights may not seem all that exciting, and certainly many of them don’t lend themselves to great photographs or flashy videos. For our engineers, scientists, technicians, test pilots, and designers, these are the moments we live for. The opportunity to take one’s ideas and creations and to pass them through the crucible—and then to get new data, to improve the ideas, and to see the fruits of those improvements—this is the stuff we dream of from our earliest days as students.

This has already been an incredible journey, and in many ways, we are just getting to the best part. Thanks for sharing it with us, and please stay tuned to this website and to our social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn) for more.