Virgin Galactic unveiled its gleaming new spaceship Friday, the first craft specifically designed to carry paying customers to space and return them safety to Earth.
The new blue, silver and white VSS Unity will undergo extensive testing on the ground and in unpowered flight before pilots fire up its rocket for flight tests. The company hasn’t yet released a schedule for when it may begin carrying passengers aloft, instead insisting it will launch only when ready.
Unity replaces a similar model destroyed in an Oct. 31, 2014 crash, although that model was built primarily as a test craft and was never intended to carry customers. Unity, however, will pull double duty: It will finish out flight testing and then become the world’s first commercial space shuttle, its creators hope.
“It’s pretty cool to be taking people to space,” Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said Friday at an unveiling ceremony at the Mojave Air and Spaceport.
Among the first astronauts scheduled to fly with Virgin is physicist Stephen Hawking, who contributed the craft’s name following the destruction of its predecessor in an accident that also claimed the life of one of its two pilots. That crash had the potential to be a profound setback for the company.
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Unity has a variety of subtle design changes making it safer and more efficient, including a change to the “feather” mechanism that helps it descend.
Unlike traditional spacecraft, the Virgin Galactic craft descend using a system much like that of a badminton shuttlecock. After 55 test flights, the initial craft was destroyed when the descent mechanism was unlocked at the wrong time.The company is now building several more craft of the same design as Unity.
“I never thought I would have the opportunity to see our beautiful planet from space, or gaze down into the infinity beyond,” Hawking said in a recorded message played at the unveiling. “But I had reckoned without the dream of another, a man with the vision and persistence to opening up spaceflight for ordinary Earthbound citizens.”
Hawking, who uses a wheelchair, said his health may ultimately prevent him from flying into space. But in a nod to his contributions to physics and spaceflight, Unity’s logos feature large images of Hawking’s eye.
“So much of what he stands for is resonates with what we at Virgin Galactic aspire to be,” Branson said. “This watching eye reminds us not only his part in our journey, but of the unique of the unique human experience that space provides.”
Unity’s unveiling was a star-studded affair, with Harrison Ford among the dignitaries in attendance. Ford, a pilot who’s also famous for playing Han Solo in the Star Warsmovies, told reporters he’s proud to see Virgin making progress toward the stars.
Unity is the progression of design initially drafted by aerospace designer Burt Rutanand his team to win the Ansari X Prize in 2004, for the first non-governmental craft to fly to space, return to Earth, and then repeated the feat within five days. Marveling at the Unity, Rutan on Friday said he’s surprised commercial spaceflight hasn’t advanced faster. In 2004, Rutan predicted multiple companies would be flying paying astronauts into space within a decade. Today, no one has repeated his team’s feat.
“Isn’t that awful?” Rutan said. “Here we are 12 years later and no one has duplicated. It’s horrible.”
Virgin Galactic is one of several privately owned companies racing to commercialize new technology for spaceflight. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has focused on delivering cargo to the International Space Station with its Dragon capsule, while Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also planning to offer the “astronaut experience” to paying customers.