Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Dallas — Virgin Galactic unveiled its newest spacecraft, VSS Imagine, the first vehicle produced under a new assembly system that’s critical to the company’s goal of offering daily tourism flights to space.

The Imagine “demonstrates progress towards efficient design and production”, the company said in a statement on Tuesday. The new manufacturing process will reduce maintenance and enable a quicker flight tempo as the company seeks to “scale the business for the long-term”.

The spacecraft will soon begin ground testing, with glide tests planned in mid-2021 at Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. Work on a third vehicle, VSS Inspire, was slowed by the pandemic but will be finished in 2022, when it will begin flight tests, CEO Michael Colglazier said in an interview.

The shiny Imagine features a “mirror-like” exterior coating for thermal protection, Virgin Galactic said.

The company, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, wants to make commercial space travel commonplace, with a target of reaching 400 flights annually from New Mexico and expanding globally.

Virgin Galactic’s shares had risen 23% in 2021 through Monday, more than twice the gain of a Standard & Poor’s index of US aerospace and defence companies. The stock fell 1.4% to $28.81 before the start of regular trading Tuesday in New York.

Virgin Galactic was hit by delays in its path towards customer flights by pandemic-related setbacks and electrical problems on its current spacecraft, VSS Unity. That vessel’s next test flight will be in May, following a failure to launch in December that revealed the issue and led to a revamp of some systems on the vehicle. The glitches also derailed a test flight planned in February.

“We are still planning and feel great about May as the next test flight,” Colglazier said. The company hasn’t detected any other issues after a thorough review of all Unity’s systems, he said.

Engineers traced the problems to electromagnetic interference and expected to complete rework in about nine weeks, the company said February 25. The vehicle’s rocket failed to ignite during a December 12 test flight, triggering an investigation of the VSS Unity’s systems.

After building the initial three craft, Virgin Galactic will switch to a slightly different spacecraft design, called a Delta class vehicle, that will lead to faster assembly times and less maintenance. The company is also exploring whether to contract parts of the assembly work for its carrier “motherships”, which drop the spacecraft from high altitudes, Colglazier said.

Virgin Galactic plans to resume ticket sales after it flies Branson to space this summer and to begin tackling its customer backlog of about 600 people in 2022. The first formal “revenue flight” will be for the Italian Air Force in the late northern hemisphere summer or early autumn, following Branson’s excursion.

All the flights will be from Spaceport America although the company, based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has said it plans to operate from additional spaceports in the future.



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