Virgin Galactic, the commercial space company founded by billionaire Richard Branson and backed by Abu Dhabi, is set to resume test flights next month in a new spaceship that replaces the craft that crashed in a fatal accident two years ago.
The company, in which Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments has a 37.8 per cent stake, is due to complete ground tests in August and move to testing the vessel in the skies while attached to an aircraft, according to Jonathan Firth, vice president at Virgin Galactic. The spaceship, named Unity, is scheduled to begin the final stage of testing - independent, fully powered flights - next year.
Branson is vying with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to be the first to ferry private adventurers to the edge of space in reusable craft. Virgin Galactic’s flights have been grounded since October 2014, after its SpaceShipTwo broke up in mid-air, while Bezos’s offering has successfully fired and landed its craft multiple times.
Virgin Galactic has yet to set a date for the first commercial flight, and Firth said this would depend on the results of the tests.
“We’ve thrown out so many dates in the past that we weren’t able to keep to, we’re being a bit more conservative this time,” he said in an interview in London.
The designer of both spaceships, Scaled Composites, should have protected against the flaw that caused Unity’s predecessor to tear apart, the US National Transportation Safety Board has said. The crash occurred when a pilot prematurely activated a brake, killing him and injuring a co-pilot.
The new spaceship has a similar design to the original one, which underwent about 30 powered flight tests before the incident.
Virgin Galactic has almost 700 bookings at $250,000 a ticket, Firth said. The cost could fall to less than $100,000 if other entrepreneurs can successfully create competing flight programmes, stimulating demand and pushing down prices.
Virgin Galactic also has a satellite business, which will use an old Boeing 747 jumbo jet from its sister airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, to fling rockets into the atmosphere. It’s scheduled to begin flight tests in late 2017. Firth said the unit could be split off into a separate company using the Virgin brand.
“If you look at the history of Virgin, we’re always thinking of the structure of our organisations,” he said. “I wouldn’t discount anything.”
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