On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic unveiled its latest spacecraft, the VSS Imagine. The vessel is the first in the company’s Spaceship III class, with at least two more currently in production. One of the most notable things about the new design is that the entire craft is covered with a silvery, metallic material, giving it a retro sci-fi feel. The look, according to company president Mike Moses, came from the company’s founder Richard Branson, who saw the material on the inner surfaces of the company’s current spacecraft, the VSS Unity, and wanted to cover the next spaceship with it.
“It looks like what you think spaceships should look like,” Moses says. “Which is why I think he wanted it.”
One of the newer innovations in the Spacecraft III line, says Moses, is that the manufacturing is modular, which means that production of these spacecraft can move along more quickly. The next spaceship in the line, which will be called the VSS Inspire, is currently in production.
“It rapidly increases the efficiency with which you can build a ship,” Moses says.
An additional benefit of the new design, says Moses, is that it decreases maintenance costs, and also makes inspections easier. “So I can turn around the ship faster, and fly more,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s what our business model demands.”
Over the next few months, the spacecraft will undergo ground testing at the company’s testing facility in Mojave. Once completed, later in the summer it will be flown out to the Spaceport America in New Mexico on Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which also carries the company’s spacecraft for test flights. Once in New Mexico, the Imagine will undergo more tests before its first engine-powered flight.
In the meantime, the company’s spacecraft VSS Unity is next scheduled for a test flight in May, after the company has spent some time tracking down and solving problems related to electromagnetic interference and its new flight computer. Moses says he believes the company’s solved this problem, in part with a design imported from the Spaceship III class designs.
If all goes well with the test flight in May, the company will then begin a series of test flights over the summer, one of which will include the Branson himself. The flights will include testing the cabin experience for passengers, mission specialists, as well as the company’s capabilities for conducting scientific research in microgravity. All of these will pave the way for Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flights.
“This summer’s going to be pretty busy with Unity flying and Imagine flying in test flights at the same time,” says Moses. “It’s going to be great – the Spaceport is going to start to look like a spaceport, not just a runway.”
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