Virgin Galactic will try to blast humans into space this week

If all goes well, SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to enter space for the first time on December 13

By KATIA MOSKVITCH, Wednesday 12 December 2018

Credit Virgin Galactic

Per Wimmer is a patient man. For 18 years, the Danish entrepreneur and philanthropist has been holding a ticket for the experience of a lifetime – blasting off into space. So when Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft VMS Eve and its precious cargo – SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – takes off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on December 13 at around 16:00 GMT, Wimmer will likely hold his breath longer than many others. To him, the success of the test flight is personal.

While it’s Virgin’s fourth rocket-powered test flight, now for the first time SpaceShipTwo is actually going to go where it’s been designed to – crossing the invisible, ever-beckoning frontier at an altitude of 80 kilometres, at the outskirts of our atmosphere. Once beyond, the VSS Unity (or Virgin Spaceship Unity to give it its full name) will become the second-only manned commercial vehicle to reach space. “After this flight, SS2 pilots will receive their astronaut wings,” says Wimmer, smiling.

Only one commercial manned craft so far has made it to space – SS2’s predecessor SpaceShipOne. On June 21, 2004, world-record-breaking pilot Mike Melville flew it to 100km above sea level, crossing the Karman line, the boundary between aeronautics and astronautics. He did it three times in total – the third time reaching 112km. In contrast, Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket now routinely flies way beyond, delivering supplies to the International Space Station, but there is nobody on board.

VSS Unity’s fourth powered flight is likely to follow the same scenario as during previous tests. First, jet-powered VMS Eve (short for Virgin Mothership), named after founder Richard Branson’s mother, will bring the two-winged spaceplane to about 14,000 metres. There, the plane will detach from underneath Eve’s wing and fire its engines. It’ll then manoeuvre to a nearly vertical position and accelerate to supersonic speeds. A few minutes later it will reach 80,500 metres – where weightlessness reigns and our blue marble shows off its curvature. The craft won’t stay there long – the entire trip is expected to last under two hours. If all goes to plan, VMS Unity will softly glide back to Earth and touch down on the runway like a commercial jet.

There will be differences with the previous flights, though – such as the additional fuel, the more complicated control systems to make sure the craft goes exactly where it is supposed to, the added life support capabilities, and the additional strategies in case of an emergency from space to get the astronauts back to Earth, says Haym Benaroya, professor of aerospace engineering at Rutgers University.

Branson is at the launch site in the Mojave desert and he likely won’t be the only one counting the minutes to the successful touchdown of the spaceplane. Every successful flight is especially poignant after the loss of Virgin’s VSS Enterprise and the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury in October 2014. The pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured. Subsequent investigation found that the tragedy was due to a fault in the braking system.

With still relatively few space flights happening, every disaster is etched in memory. Just this October, the world gasped when Russia’s Soyuz rocket malfunctioned shortly after liftoff. The two astronauts on board survived, no doubt in part thanks to their quick reaction, in part to the solid technology, – and in part, likely, thanks to luck.

While Soyuz has been flying reliably for half a century, Virgin Galactic has only had a handful of test flights. VSS Unity is aimed at carrying six commercial passengers and two pilots to space, and the first passenger flight is already sold out, with tickets at $250,000 per flight. “There are about 700 space tourists holding tickets today,” says Wimmer. “It’s quite a community.”

VSS Unity lands after a third powered test flight in July 2018 – Credit Virgin Galactic

He never expected to wait this long. When he bought his first ticket in 2000 to a flight with Virginia-based Space Adventures, and later also got one for the XCOR Lynx rocketplane of XCOR Aerospace (which went bankrupt in 2017) and for the SS2, he thought it might take just a few years before he would see Earth from above. After all, Space Adventures is the company that made a deal with the Russian agency Roscosmos to fly the very first space tourist, 60-year-old US businessman Dennis Tito, to space. He blasted off in a Soyuz on April 28, 2001 having reportedly paid $20m, and spent nearly eight days onboard the ISS.

VMS Unity has only been flying since December 2016. Two and a half years and seven glide tests later, it finally performed a supersonic, rocket-powered flight on April 5, 2018 – for the first time since the VSS Enterprise tragedy. When exactly Wimmer and other ticket holders will start flying is an open question – it’s likely to be soon, Wimmer thinks, but the company is extra cautious. “They need to prove reliability, that they can launch without accidents or any mishaps of a serious nature, repeatedly,” says Benaroya. And, he adds, Virgin needs to be able to turn around the returning craft in a reasonable time for reuse to remain profitable.

SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor, SS1, flew 17 times before retiring in 2004. Built by Scaled Composites, a company owned by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, it was backed by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The craft won the $10m Ansari X Prize for repeated flights. And then Richard Branson came along and backed the successor ship, twice as large and able to carry two pilots instead of one and six passengers instead of two. The ultimate aim for SS2 is to reach 110km of altitude. Thursday’s test flight is already a historic step in that direction.

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only private company aiming to take civilians to space. SpaceX, which now works with Nasa, has plans to ferry tourists eventually too, although its primary goal is shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS on its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which may make its first test flight next year. Branson’s main competition is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin venture, which reportedly aims to start selling tickets to fare-paying passengers next year, to take them – just like Virgin – to the edge of space.

How the two companies are working to get there is distinct. Virgin’s approach, known as air launch, involves giving its spaceplane a boost with its mothership. Blue Origin, on the other hand, is developing a reusable crew capsule and booster, called New Shepard. In its latest – ninth – test on 18 July this year, the booster reached about 120km altitude. The capsule carrying a dummy appropriately called Mannequin Skywalker then split from it, and the two parts separately and smoothly returned to Earth, touching down under parachutes.

And then there are the Russians, too. All seven tourists to space so far went up on Roscosmos’s Soyuz rocket, and although the blueprints of the technology date from the 1960s with the first flight on April 23, 1967, experts agree that Soyuz is an incredibly reliable workhorse. So far, for its 162 launches (133 manned ones) it had merely five accidents – and just two of them fatal.

“The Russians can keep things flying for a lot longer than we would feel comfortable doing,” says Benaroya – “maybe another decade or two.” In principle, he adds, they can go on as long as they want, like Americans do, say, with Boeing aircraft that are operating at two to three times their design lives. “We pay the Russians a tremendous amount per astronaut launch, so they will try to go forever. But given the stakes with the Soyuz – people and supplies – at some point they won’t get customers because insurance won’t be possible. Once an American alternative – perhaps by SpaceX – is available, we will use it exclusively.”

Still, for most of us, going up to space just to marvel at our blue home from above is likely to remain a distant dream. While the technology of suborbital and even orbital travel will keep developing, says European Space Agency scientist Bernard Foing, safety will have to be rock solid, and ticket costs will have to plummet. So, he adds, we just have to accept that space travel “will be for long a very special experience and will certainly not seem routine to any of the passengers and their family for quite some time.”