Virgin Galactic, a British spaceflight company, has begun preparations for the first suborbital space flight to be operated from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It was revealed in September that Virgin Galactic was planning the final phase of SpaceShipTwo aircraft tests, and now the company has confirmed that it is planning the first two test flights with the crew, and that should happen on October 22 or a little later.
The flight will be crewed by two pilots and will carry several research payloads in the cabin of VSS Unity.
The preparations include pilot training in a ground-based simulator, as well as using its VMS Eve aircraft carrier. The pre-flight testing prior to the take-off is designed to functionally verify that all systems are working – including raising the feather, swinging the landing gear, firing the reaction control thrusters, and sweeping the flight control systems through a full range of motion. An aircraft, carrying SpaceShipTwo in height before launching it mid-air, reportedly has a similar structure and controls to the spacecraft itself.
“VMS Eve has the ability to test pilot proficiency by simulating the glide and approach-to-land phase of flight for SpaceShipTwo pilots,” explains the Chief Pilot, Dave Mackay. “The cockpit structure of Eve is almost identical to that of Unity: the same pilot seats and windows, as well as very similar flight controls and instruments. This, coupled with the fact that with Eve’s landing gear down, and one set of speed brakes out, it descends on the same flight path angle as SpaceShipTwo, means that the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window. This makes Eve a very valuable in-flight simulator for the spaceship’s final approach and landing phases.“
SpaceShipTwo has already made two flights in space in the past. In 2019, the company’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses along with two pilots, experienced suborbital flights that will be available to space tourists in the future. However, this will be the first flight from its headquarters in Spaceport America.
The company announced that the test flight would carry three research payloads that are part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. And among the passengers on the upcoming flight will be a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Dr. Alan Stern, who will perform scientific experiments and will also carry instruments to monitor vital parameters.