WASHINGTON — When Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo takes to the skies above New Mexico later this month, it will do so without the crowds and publicity once expected for the historic flight.
Virgin Galactic announced Dec. 1 that is had rescheduled a powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane for a window that opens Dec. 11 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Pilots CJ Sturckow and David Mackay will fly the vehicle on trajectory that will go above the 80-kilometer altitude that the company defines as space, based on the altitude U.S. government agencies use for awarding astronaut wings. The vehicle will then glide to a landing at the spaceport.
Virgin had scheduled the launch for last month, but postponed it Nov. 16 when the state imposed a new stay-at-home order to address a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. That order closed nonessential businesses and placed restrictions on those allowed to remain open.
That stay-at-home order has been replaced with a “Red to Green Framework” that sets restrictions on a county-by-county basis. Nearly every county in New Mexico, though, is in the highest, or “red,” category, including where Spaceport America is located. That category does allow nonessential businesses to open, but at significantly reduced capacity.
Virgin Galactic said it would proceed with the test flight using only “essential personnel” at the spaceport. “Only essential staff will be on-site to support the preflight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight,” the company said in a statement, adding that there will be no guests or media at the spaceport to witness the flight.
“In accordance with local government guidelines and safety protocols, we have minimized the number of people on-site to the greatest degree possible,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the company statement.
It was unclear if the company will provide a live broadcast of the flight. Colglazier said the company “will endeavor to capture and share the beautiful images with the world after the flight has been completed.”
That approach has the approval of the state government. “This is an exciting announcement that demonstrates we have gotten back on track in a safe and speedy manner,” the state’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in that statement.
If the flight does go beyond the 80-kilometer altitude, it will make New Mexico only the third state to host a crewed spaceflight, after Florida and California. It will also mark the realization of an effort that started 15 years ago, when then-Gov. Bill Richardson and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson announced a partnership that would lead to the development of the state-funded spaceport.
“For all us in the state of New Mexico, we always interpreted these early flights to be big events with big crowds,” said Scott McLaughlin, interim executive director of Spaceport America, during a Dec. 2 meeting of the board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. “Because of COVID, though, we have to focus down and look at these more as test flights.”
He said the spaceport was working to inform the public that the spaceport is closed to all but essential personnel, and has also done tabletop exercises with law enforcement agencies to plan for the event. “We don’t know if there will be a crowd or not,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure people know that it’s not a good idea.”
When Mackay and Sturckow do fly, they will do so in a new uniform. The company unveiled Dec. 4 a new flight suit for its pilots, designed by Under Armour, the athletic apparel company that also designed the suits Virgin’s customers will wear. The new suits are in the same shade of blue as the customer suits with black accents, replacing the black suits that the pilots previous wore.
“I’m very much looking forward to wearing my own spacesuit during New Mexico’s first human spaceflight later this month,” said Mackay, who is also Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, in a statement, “and then many times in the future as we share the wonder of space with our future astronauts.”
Virgin Galactic aborts SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight
Updated 6:50 p.m. Eastern with company statement.
WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo aborted an attempted suborbital spaceflight Dec. 12 from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, carrying the SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity by the company, took off from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico at 10:24 a.m. Eastern. Piloting SpaceShipTwo were Dave Mackay, the company’s chief test pilot, and former NASA astronaut CJ Sturckow.
VSS Unity separated from WhiteKnightTwo at about 11:15 a.m. Eastern. According to a webcast from NASASpaceFlight.com, the spaceplane appeared to ignite its hybrid rocket engine but almost immediately shut it down. The vehicle then glided back to Spaceport America, landing at 11:27 a.m. Eastern, the company announced on Twitter. “Pilots and vehicles back safe and sound,” the company said.
“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape,” the company tweeted shortly after SpaceShipTwo landed. “We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon.”
In an update later Dec. 12, Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said a computer on SpaceShipTwo lost connection around the time of ignition. “As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor. Following this occurrence, our pilots flew back to Spaceport America and landed gracefully as usual,” he said in a statement. An investigation to find the root cause of the computer issue is underway.
The company did not provide its own livestream of the flight and did not host media or other guests at the spaceport, restricting access to only essential personnel because of the pandemic.
The flight took place almost two years to the day after SpaceShipTwo’s first flight to space, from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Sturckow piloted that flight with Mark Stucky. The company made a second flight to space in February 2019, also from Mojave, with Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci piloting the vehicle and Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, also on board.
The company then paused the powered test flight program to perform upgrades to the vehicle as well as outfit the cabin interior. Virgin Galactic relocated the vehicles to Spaceport America in New Mexico in February and conducted a series of captive carry and glide flights ahead of this powered flight attempt.
The flight was intended to be the first of three the company said it would perform before beginning commercial operations. A second flight, in the first quarter of 2021, would carry four company employees along with two pilots to test the cabin interior and the spaceflight experience. A third flight would follow as soon as late in the first quarter of 2021 with company founder Richard Branson on board.
“When I became CEO, I was briefed on the safety engineering of our spaceflight system, which is purposely designed to enable our pilots to safely glide back to the Spaceport at any point during the flight profile,” Colglazier said. “Seeing firsthand how our pilots brought Unity in for a picture perfect landing after an off-nominal condition confirmed this approach. I am even more confident that this is the level of safety that consumers will want and will be expecting from us.”