Virgin Galactic: Just a dream?

Into space or into the ground?

How is Virgin Galactic’s plan holding up after the crash? Jonathan Lee explores this issue in more detail.

Never before had anyone ventured into the dream of space tourism until Virgin Galactic came along, planning to develop commercial spaceflight. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, the company, part of the Virgin group, aims to become the first ‘spaceline’ on earth, democratising access to space for the benefit of the human race.

Does Virgin take you into space or into the ground?

The company has started to create prototypes; their spaceflight system consists of two vehicles: a carrier aircraft and a spaceship. These two vehicles are WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo respectively.

Virgin Galactic will not be affected by this accident

WhiteKnightTwo is a four-engined, dual-fuselage jet aircraft. Just three of the signature design features are its twin-fuselage configuration, single-piece carbon-composite main wing and four jet engines, with a space in the middle into which SpaceShipTwo is attached during takeoff. SpaceShipTwo is a reusable spacecraft, designed to carry at most six passengers and two flight crew. It is powered by a hybrid rocket motor. This motor uses a solid fuel source and a liquid oxidizer. These are both completely unique designs, and both vehicles will be built by the companies: Scaled Composites and The Spaceship Company.

Virgin’s plan is to have WhiteKnightTwo bring SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of about 50,000 feet and then launch it. Then, when SpaceShipTwo would reach Mach 1.4, pilots would unlock the ‘feathering system’, allowing them to pull back a central lever, making the tail booms move into an upward braking position which would increase the drag and increase stability. Crucially, this mechanism is only to be activated during atmospheric re-entry. Next, the aircraft would use its hybrid rockets for 70 seconds, accelerating to 2,500 mph. The rockets are then shut down, letting the power from the acceleration take it to a maximum height of 361,000 feet, allowing the passengers the best anti-gravity experience possible. After a few minutes, SpaceShipTwo is due to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, and the feathering system mentioned above is to be activated. The system would then slow the aircraft, reducing heat build-up, and then let it fall through the upper atmosphere. When the aircraft reaches 70,000 feet, the wings would de-feather, giving control to the pilots and allowing them to glide back to a safe landing.

The NTSB inspect the wreckage
The NTSB inspect the wreckage

However, on the 31st of October 2015, a planned test flight ended in a catastrophic in-flight break up. The prototype WhiteKnightTwo was VMS Eve and the prototype SpaceShipTwo was the VSS Enterprise. The VSS Enterprise disintegrated in mid-air and crashed into the Mojave Desert, California, just after separating from VMS Eve, killing one of the pilots and leaving one injured. At first, most critics thought that the cause of the crash was the fuel source blowing up, but this claim was quickly rejected after further investigation by NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). A video taken inside the cockpit showed that the crash was caused by the early release of the feathering system. It showed that the feathering system was accidentally unlocked by the pilots when VSS Enterprise was traveling at the speed of Mach 1, instead of Mach 1.4. The video also showed that the tail booms snapped back to the braking position without the pull of the central lever, suggesting that there was a technical malfunction referred to as an ‘uncommanded feather’.

The crash was caused by the early release of the feathering system

Already about 700 people have put down deposits for this journey, with each ticket costing $250,000 (£156,000). There are many billionaires and celebrities already in the queue, including Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking, but some have already given up their tickets due to the VSS Enterprise incident and demanded refunds.

During the flight the passengers will experience zero-gravity. However, well known astronaut Chris Hadfield (who manned the ISS for five months and became famous for his rendition of Space Oddity on YouTube) said: ‘its not much of a space flight’. He believes people are signing up for a ticket without really knowing what they are going to get.

Virgin Galactic will not be affected by this accident, and will continue guiding the world in space tourism. They have already been delayed several times before, with the maiden flight originally announced by Richard Branson to be scheduled for 2009. Richard Branson said: ‘Was Virgin Galactic, and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it? I got a very firm answer to that question immediately when I landed in Mojave. From the designers, the builders, the engineers, the pilots and the whole community who passionately believed — and still believe — that truly opening space and making it accessible and safe is of vital importance to all our futures.’

White-Knight-Two: The Virgin dream
White-Knight-Two: The Virgin dream