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Virgin Galactic plans Dec. 11 test flight from Spaceport America

SpaceShipTwo spaceplane and White Knight Two. (Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg, Wikimedia Commons/Released)

Virgin Galactic hopes to launch New Mexico’s first human spaceflight from Spaceport America on Dec. 11 after pausing its plans because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Virgin had previously aimed to launch a rocket-powered test flight between Nov. 19 and Nov. 23 but postponed it in response to a stricter state health order that called for nonessential businesses to shut down until Nov. 30.

A new three-tiered system the state put into place Wednesday allows most businesses to operate in a limited capacity.

“With safety as our core priority, we remain committed to completing our first powered flight in New Mexico,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. “In accordance with local government guidelines and safety protocols, we have minimized the number of people on-site to the greatest degree possible.”

A mother ship will haul the SpaceShipTwo Unity to about 50,000 feet and release it. A hybrid rocket engine will then propel the aircraft to the edge of space before it glides back down to the launch area.

The pending flight will depend on good weather conditions and technical readiness, the company said. It will test the customer cabin, the flight controls and the ship’s upgraded horizontal stabilizers.

It also will carry NASA “payloads” or hardware as part of the agency’s program to test new space-travel technologies. Virgin is among half a dozen companies that were awarded a combined $45 million contract for payload testing.

Two pilots will operate the otherwise empty craft during this first flight.

A second rocket-boosted flight, scheduled for early next year, will have four mission specialists in the cabin.

After that, a third test flight will carry Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

Virgin executives and state leaders have said they welcome the maiden test flight from the spaceport after years of delays in making commercial flights materialize.

Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson announced plans in 2006 to build the for-profit spaceport. Since then, the state has spent about $220 million building the facility.

The prospect of flying high above Earth has generated enough interest to sell 600 tickets at $200,000 to $250,000 each. Another 900 people have paid $1,000 for reserved seats.

Because no guests or media will be allowed at the spaceport during the first launch, the company will photograph the event and distribute the pictures worldwide, Colglazier said.

Scott McLaughlin, the spaceport’s director of business development, said New Mexico will be only the third state from which people have flown into space.

“New Mexico has waited a long time. We’ve all waited a long time,” McLaughlin said during a spaceport board meeting Wednesday. “We’re rooting for Virgin on this one.”

In a statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was grateful to Virgin Galactic and other businesses for their commitment to safety during the pandemic. She said she was excited to hear Virgin announce it was back on track with the test flight.

“New Mexico’s future on the cutting edge of aerospace development is brighter than ever,” she said.

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(c) 2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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