What SpaceShipTwo’s rollout milestone means — and what’s next.
Very soon, Virgin Galactic will introduce our new spaceship to our customers, our partners, and the world. We’ll celebrate the hard work our engineers and technicians have poured into making each of SpaceShipTwo’s parts, testing each one of them, and assembling them together into our beautiful new vehicle. As we celebrate the end of one critical phase of work, we also mark the start of a new phase, one focused on further testing and, ultimately, the first commercial human spaceflight program in history.
In recent years, Virgin Galactic has built up a truly world class operations organization to match our manufacturing and testing teams. We’ve pulled in experienced leaders from NASA’s mission control and astronaut corps, from the militaries of three nations and from leading aviation and transportation companies, and we’ve charged them with developing a plan to safely test and operate a reusable spacecraft. They have done their homework and subjected their processes to expert external reviews, and they are eager to take the proverbial keys to SpaceShipTwo.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Testing
When we talk to our customers, partners, and supporters about our mission of opening space to all, they often express both a desire for the future to arrive quickly and also a profound sense of amazement that commercial space travel is finally something real, not just science fiction. Managing that transition from fiction to reality requires clever ideas, lots of hard work, and above all else, lots and lots of testing.
Even before we unveil this brand new vehicle—indeed, even before we’d assembled the parts together into something that looked like a spaceship—we had begun a rigorous test campaign patterned off the relevant industry standards. Starting at the level of individual pieces and components, we poked, prodded, stretched, squeezed, bent, and twisted everything used to build these vehicles. We’ve run a spaceship cabin through thousands of pressure cycles simulating the flight from ground level to space and back; we’ve conducted nearly one hundred full-scale tests of our rocket motor system; we’ve bent and torqued our megastructures in ways significantly exceeding what they’d see in flight.
This type of testing isn’t complete yet—because it will never be complete. As a manufacturing organization, we will always do this sort of testing on parts. But we are now entering a phase where instead of just testing pieces and subsystems, we test the vehicle as a whole.
We are not starting from scratch even in that respect. Because our new vehicle is so similar to its predecessor, we benefit from incredibly useful data from 55 successful test flights as well as the brutal but important lessons from one tragic flight test accident. And so, we will begin our full vehicle tests by validating and calibrating that existing data set by running tests similar to what you’ve seen before. But there is still much more to test.
Some aspects of testing are likely obvious to the layperson; for example, while we’ve built an in-house rocket team that quite possibly has the most experience of any group in the world with hybrid rocket motors of this class, that experience in ground testing has be validated, repeatedly, with performance in the air. There are other equally important tests that aren’t obvious to the casual observer, or perhaps even to experienced rocketeers and aviators who haven’t worked with our unique vehicle design. Our team’s job is to plan out not just the obvious tests but also the strange and inventive ones, to conduct those tests, and to use the data from those tests to re-examine everything about our vehicle to ensure we can take the next step forward.
What To Expect When You’re Space Testing
If you are expecting SpaceShipTwo to blast off and head straight to space on the day we unveil her, let us disillusion you now: this will be a ground-based celebration. Indeed, our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts. We already know these things work individually, but one can’t simply assume they will all work together—that must be tested and verified. We’ll do so quickly, but we won’t cut corners.
Once that is done, we’ll be eager to get air under the wings of our new spaceship. We’ll begin first with captive carry flight, during which SpaceShipTwo stays firmly mated to her mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Once that is completed, we’ll move to glide testing, where our new spaceship flies freely for the first time as a glider coming home from an altitude of 45,000+ feet (14 km) while our incredible pilots test out her handling.
After several glide flights have been completed and we are satisfied with the results, rocket-powered test flights are next. We will execute a thoughtful and steady progression of flights. Each mission will be designed to test something important: how the heat from the rocket motor dissipates in the rear of the vehicle, how the vehicle behaves when breaking the sound barrier on both ascent and descent, how closely our models of forces on the vehicle match reality.
Each flight will generally fly a little higher, a little faster, and sometimes we may need to repeat a test point to get additional data or confirm a result. When she first crosses 100,000 feet (31 km), SpaceShipTwo will already be above 99% of the atmosphere, and the pilots will experience true weightlessness while surrounded by a sky that has noticeably begun turning black. When she eventually reaches 50 miles (80 km), her pilots will have met NASA and the US Air Force’s requirements for official astronaut status, and they will be recognized by our team and by the US government as bonafide space travelers; when she crosses 62 miles (100 km) sometime later, they will also be recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
When we are confident we can safely carry our customers to space, we will start doing so. We feel incredibly honored that our earliest paying customers already number more than the total number of humans who have ever been to space. Our first spaceflight with paying customers; our first flight full of research experiments; our first flight with a full complement of eight (a feat that has only been accomplished once before in all of history, by the Space Shuttle on mission STS-61A); the dozens of times we will fly the first ever astronaut from a given nation — each of these will be exciting milestones in the history of space exploration.
No one is more eager than us to complete those milestones—nor to share this journey, with all its challenges and triumphs, with a global public that craves inspiring and ambitious stories to balance out the daily barrage of the 24 hour news cycle. But this isn’t a race. We have shown we are committed to being thorough in our testing: it is the right thing to do and it is essential to our ultimate success. As a thousand year old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars. But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it.