Virgin Galactic has set a date for its rescheduled flight tests into suborbital space to begin from 11 December, after postponing its previously planned tests due to COVID-19 restrictions.
From 11 December, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company will conduct the third crewed test flight of its VSS Unity space plane from New Mexico’s Spaceport.
The flight will test elements of the spacecraft’s customer cabin, stabilizers and flight controls during boost.
The tests were initially due to take place between 19 November and 23 November, however a new surge of COVID cases in the state resulted in a stay-at-home order being enacted, which caused the company to postpone the flights.
“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 at the time of the postponement.
“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.”
While the tests will now forge ahead, pending good weather conditions and technical readiness, only essential personnel will be allowed onboard in light of the COVID situation, with no guests or media invited.
VSS Unity is Virgin Galactic’s latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle; a six-passenger, two-pilot craft is designed to make brief jaunts to suborbital space.
SpaceShipTwo takes off from a runway beneath the wing of a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo. 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 third spaceflight, now scheduled for December, 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.
This Unity test flight 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 Sir 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.