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Virgin Galactic postpones latest spaceplane flight test

written by Hannah Dowling | November 18, 2020

Virgin Galactic has announced it will reschedule a flight test into suborbital space that was planned for later this week, in light of regional COVID-19 restrictions.

Richard Branson’s space tourism company was intending to conduct the third crewed test flight of its VSS Unity space plane from New Mexico’s Spaceport America between 19 November and 23 November.

However, the company has now said it will postpone these tests to an unspecified later date, as COVID-19 continues to ravage through the state and country. 

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New Mexico has reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day for the 10 days, with the state now enforcing a stay-at-home order until at least 30 November. Across the US, new cases of coronavirus near 200,000 per day.

“With the health and safety of our team members in mind, and in accordance with the recent direction from the New Mexico Department of Health, we will be minimising our New Mexico operations to the greatest degree possible,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement on Monday.

“While these new restrictions cause us to adjust our flight schedule, we take this pause in stride and will be prepared to resume our preflight procedures and announce a new test flight window as soon as we can.”

VSS Unity is Virgin Galactic’s latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle; a six-passenger, two-pilot craft designed to make brief jaunts to suborbital space. 

SpaceShipTwo takes off from a runway beneath the wing of a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo. 

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WhiteKnightTwo carries the spaceplane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, where SpaceShipTwo drops free, and makes its own way to suborbital space.

To date, Unity has reached space twice, on two previous test flights conducted in December 2018 and February 2019.

Both previous missions took off from ports in California, close by to the HQ of Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company.

The now-postponed third spaceflight will be the first that Unity makes from Spaceport America, the current hub of the company’s commercial operations, and the intended destination for wealthy thrill-seekers to eventually board one of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered plans for a quick trip to the edge of space.

The Unity test flight, when it is formally rescheduled, will also be the first human spaceflight ever conducted in New Mexico.

According to Virgin Galactic, about 600 people have already bought their ticket to ride SpaceShipTwo when it is in full operation, each paying around $250,000 for the privilege.

The company paused further ticket sales, however plans to re-open them next year, after Virgin Group founder Richard Branson takes his seat aboard a VSS Unity test flight.

The company claims a further 400 people have expressed interest in purchasing tickets in the future.

Currently, The Spaceship Company is building two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles, with the first expected to be rolled out of the California factory in early 2021.

The company is aiming to obtain its official commercial operating licence from the US Federal Aviation Administration, once fully completing all its necessary test flights.

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