VSS Unity, new spaceplane by Virgin Galactic was unveiled during the show in Mojave, California on 19 February 2016.
Virgin Galactic is not developing its space touristic venture in such mysterious way as Blue Origin. Date of presentation second SpaceShipOne, named VSS Unity, was well known before. Whole show taken place in Virgin Galactic facility on Mojave, California. It was more carefully choreographed spectacle than ordinary space industry event. Members of Richard Branson’s family, including his one year granddaughter, were present during christening of new spaceplane. Spaceplane was named by Professor Stephen Hawking in recorded speech. White Range Rover with Richard Branson pulled out VSS Unity outside the facility to show the world future of the Virgin Galactic - commercially built spaceplane available for customers around the globe. Of course fact that it is second (and only one after loss of VSS Enterprise in 2014n not counting first SpaceShipOne which won Xprize) spaceplane manufactured by The Spaceship Company (subsidiary of Virgin Galactic responsible for manufacturing), is not establishing Virgin Galactic as potential leader of space touristic industry. This event should be considered as sign that Virgin Galactic is consequently embodying and developing own vision of commercial space flights. Example of Blue Origin shows that realism and consequence are major components of success in this business, but little amount of glitz will sooner or later become part of every space business venture as they will become more ordinary part of our life.
SpaceShipOne VSS Unity differs from its predecessor, Enterprise in few aspects, but still it is very similar construction. As every SpaceShipOne, since winning Xprize, is solid fueled spaceplane. VSS Enterprise, previous SpaceShipOne, was utilizing rubber-based hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB). Virgin Galactic planned to use in next SpaceShipOne polyamide-based grain for better thrust and propulsion consistency., but development in conventional HTPB fuel was so impressive, that Virgin decided to leave plans of using polyamide based fuel and stay with HTPB. General improvements of engines are more evolution than revolution but it seems that general progress is satisfying. Basing on what was said by The Spaceship Company President Doug Shane:
“We are really pleased with the rocket motor development program at this point. We are very close to being able to say we are qualifying the rocket motor for flight and for full envelope flight tests. It is great because we will enter this flight test program with a rocket motor system we know will work, which really hobbled the serial number one flight test program which never quite had that complete system.”
We can predict that SpaceShipOne is getting close to final phase of development as propulsion is concerned. Other confirmation of intensification of development process was given by Michael Moses, Virgin Galactic operations senior vice president. He stated:
We spent the last year and a half testing that quite extensively and the performance of that has been fantastic actually, way better than we were thinking in some areas... We are not just testing the motor but the whole integrated system, including the helium tanks up front, the dump valves, the software that’s used, and all that stuff. We are taking that to a commercial level of readiness, not just a test flight readiness.”
One of most important improvements, ultimate for commercial missions is new system for control of feathering of the tails. As we know after investigation performed by National Transportation Safety Board, catastrophe of VSS Enterprise was caused by too early releasing of feather by co-pilot. Now it is physically impossible to release feather due the special mechanical pin installed on releasing lever. Linked to computer control speed, is preventing to release lever if speed of SpaceShipOne is not safe for unlocking feather. VSS Unity is still under development, but it seems that there is not much to improve without starting real flights. SpaceShipOne will start ground tests in few weeks with fully finished and integrated VSS Unity; schedule of test flights is still unknown.