AMS Spring 2023

One Giant Leap: Branson’s Virgin Galactic Takes Space Flight on Rocket Plane

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If Richard Branson had to take his own advice, then he should know “space is hard – but worth it.” Like many of his contemporaries, the British adventurer has dreamed about traveling to space ever since watching the Apollo 11 crew land on the moon in 1969. Five decades later, Branson made a major leap toward commercial suborbital spaceflight after Virgin Galactic’s air-launched suborbital spaceplane VSS Unity successfully reached space, completing the company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight and the first test flight with a full crew in the cabin. As a result, Branson has become the first person to go to space in his own ship, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by nine days. Our interest in the feat, besides the inherent excitement, is the fact that Galactic is among the dozens of space companies known to leverage additive manufacturing technologies to create on-demand parts for cost reduction and accelerating production times.

VSS Unity crew at zero gravity. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

On July 11, 2021, the flight’s four mission astronauts were driven in a fleet of bespoke Range Rover Astronaut SUVs to the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where they boarded the craft. Once airborne, the mothership jet carried the spaceplane up to an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet before releasing it. VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 and reached space at an altitude of 53.5 miles, where Branson had a “magical” view of Earth and experienced microgravity with his crew before smoothly descending to a runway landing. Branson called the flight “the experience of a lifetime” and said he hopes to “turn the dream of space travel into a reality – for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone.”

After 17 years of research, engineering, and innovation, the extraordinary experience is now a historic landmark achievement, paving the way for space travel. The launch webcast gave thousands of viewers worldwide a glimpse of the journey Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronauts can expect once the company initiates commercial passenger services in 2022, following the completion of its test flight program.

VSS Unity, a reusable SpaceShipTwo-class suborbital rocket-powered crewed spaceplane, was the first to be manufactured by the spaceship company and named by Professor Stephen Hawking during an unveiling ceremony in 2016. Powered by a hybrid rocket motor, VSS Unity’s most innovative feature is its unique capability to change its shape in space to ensure a repeatable safe re-entry. By rotating its wings and tail booms upwards while in space, the vehicle’s stability and deceleration rate in descent is controlled by aerodynamic forces. This so-called “feathering” design takes the best from both the traditional capsule and winged space vehicle designs and “adds a little magic of its own,” stated the company.

VSS Unity’s flight path. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

During the past few years, Galactic has adopted innovative 3D printing technology already used by its spinout brand Virgin Orbit, mainly to help the brands build engine parts. One of the main partners has been German manufacturer DMG Mori with its hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing machines. The technology has been described by Orbit as revolutionary, saving the company months in production cycles by increasing production speed 10 times.

Galactic has already reported 600 reservations for its spaceplane, including celebrities like Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, and Katy Perry. Tickets cost up to $250,000 and will also include training and a spacesuit designed in collaboration with Under Armour, as well as a recording of the experience thanks to 16 cameras strategically placed throughout the cabin. The long-awaited flight will take passengers just below the Kármán line, an imaginary boundary between the atmosphere and space, where they will experience several minutes of weightlessness and view the planet through the ship’s 17 windows before returning to Earth. ​​

VSS Unity’s view from space. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

Although the focus is mainly on the one-of-a-kind space experience for passengers, Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system, including the VSS Unity, will also provide the scientific research community access to space for affordable and repeatable high-quality microgravity, as well as to generally inaccessible regions of the upper atmosphere. The capability will enable scientific experiments as well as educational and research programs to be carried out by a broader range of individuals, organizations, and institutions than ever before. The Italian Space Agency was among the first to secure a full suborbital flight.

Virgin’s VSS Unity and Mothership Eve take to the skies. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

In a heartfelt letter published after the successful trip, Branson said: “Having flown to space, I can see even more clearly how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth. We are here to make space more accessible to all and turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow.” This exciting new experience will change space flight forever as it inaugurates the dawn of a new space age.

After a memorable day, Galactic announced it teamed up with Omaze for the chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime galactic journey: two tickets to experience microgravity at the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity in 2022. Participants are encouraged to donate to support Space for Humanity‘s mission to democratize space travel to enter the sweepstakes. Winners will be announced around September 29 and will also get a chance to tour Spaceport America with Branson himself.

Virgin Galactic and Omaze team up for sweepstakes; two winners will go to space on one of the first Virgin Galactic Flights in 2022. Image courtesy of Omaze/Virgin Galactic.

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