Virgin Galactic looks to wrestle space flights back on course this weekend

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Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (NYSE:SPCE) is fighting to get its space tourism strategy back on course, with confirmation today that it will launch another manned test flight of its space craft later this month.


The company, which was founded by Richard Branson and has around 600 ‘future astronauts’ on its waiting list, has suffered a series of problems over the winter and spring that has pushed back the crucial test flight of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle – also known as VSS Unity – that will allow its maiden space voyage to take off.


Back in December, the ship’s rockets misfired during a manned flight test, with the test then pencilled in for February.


But engineers discovered glitches with Unity’s ignition systems, which led to the indefinite postponement of the flight and expectation that the company would not be able to begin accepting passengers until 2022.


At the company’s quarterly results this month, further doubts were raised about when the test would be able to take place, with the timing of the flight still “being evaluated”.


But today Virgin Galactic said a rocket-powered test flight of Unity will be conducted this Saturday, May 22, “pending weather and technical checks”.


Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer said the flight had been given the green light after a maintenance review was carried out of VMS Eve, the ‘mothership’ aircraft that has been modified to carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet before releasing its passenger ship.


Virgin Galactic stressed that it “regularly monitors its vehicles to verify their condition and inform timing of future upgrades and modifications that can improve performance or reduce future maintenance work”.


It explained that a post-flight inspection of VMS Eve in early May “called for further engineering analysis to assess a known maintenance item in the tail of the vehicle, which was scheduled to be addressed during the next maintenance period. This analysis has been completed with the company determining structures healthy, clearing Eve for flight”.


This Saturday’s flight will be crewed by two pilots and will carry research payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities program.


VG said a key objective of the upcoming flight will be to test the remedial work that has been completed on Unity to lower the electromagnetic interference (EMI) levels experienced on the December flight that had led to the onboard computer halting ignition of the rocket motor.


This weekend’s flight will also incorporate all the original test objectives of the December flight, including assessing the ship’s horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during the boost phase of the flight, evaluating elements of the customer cabin, and testing the live stream capability from the spaceship to the ground.


Once this test flight is completed and an extensive review has been carried out of inflight data, the company said this will inform the next steps in the test flight program.

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