Several NASA payloads from the agency’s Flight Opportunities program will make the suborbital journey with the VSS Unity and crew.
The payloads will require the ship to point its nose up for reentry as soon as the engine stops. On passenger flights, the rocket plane would turn upside down to give passengers a view of Earth. But the science payloads don’t need a view, so the VSS Unity and crew will position the ship for the science needs instead.
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, will use this flight to test new features of the spaceplane’s crew cabin and upgrades to the ship itself.
The company will also use the flight the verify fixes to VSS Unity's engine, which suffered an abort during start-up on its December 2020 flight. That in-air abort saw the two-person crew safely glide the spaceplane back to the runway at Spaceport America and provided real-time abiltiy for Virgin Galactic and its pilots to fly a real, not simulated abort.
In-air aborts and safe landings are a key aspect of Virigin Galactic's safety procedures and plans to handle issues with the rocket-powered spaceplane in flight.
Image: One of the NASA-sponsored payloads receives final work before being loaded onto the VSS Unity for flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Part of the SpaceShipTwo-class fleet, the VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Unity is a suborbital, rocket-engine-powered spaceplane capable of short trips to 80 km.
Unlike its prime competitor from Blue Origin, the Virgin Galactic’s suborbital craft is piloted and drop-launches from underneath a specially designed and built, one of a kind, aircraft called White Knight Two.
Unity is designed primarily to serve Virgin Galactic’s space tourism market, where people will pay for a seat on a future suborbital mission.
During testing and purposefully tailored missions, the VSS Unity can also fly scientific experiments for universities, research institutions, and national space agencies.
The second ship of the SpaceShipTwo-class fleet, Unity was named by Dr. Stephen Hawking, whose eye is the model for the logo on the side of the craft.
Construction began in 2012, with a first captive flight (held by White Knight Two) on September 8th, 2016, a first free-flight (no rocket engine ignited) flight on December 3rd, 2016, and a first suborbital flight, reaching the 80 km boundary where the United States says space begins, on December 13th, 2018.
That first suborbital flight became the first human space launch (U.S. definition of space; a majority of the world considers 100 km to be the start of space) from the United States since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011.
Image: Virgin Galactic
White Knight Two - VMS Eve
A plane built specifically to take SpaceShipTwo-class spaceplanes from a runway up to altitude, where the SpaceShipTwo crafts are then dropped from underneath White Knight Two to begin their journey to the edge of space.
White Knight Two has two main bodies, four engines, and a total wingspan of 43 meters.
The SpaceShipTwo vehicles are attached between the two main bodies, one of which is identical to the passenger cabin on SpaceShipTwo crafts and will serve as a trainer for future space tourists.
Image: Virgin Galactic
Meet the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world.
Located in the US state of New Mexico near the White Sands Missile Range, the port hosts Virgin Galactic, UP Aerospace, Exos Aerospace, and others for both suborbital flights and ground testing of new spaceflight technologies.
Its primary purpose, however, is to serve the space tourism industry, with Virgin Galactic choosing Spaceport America for its launch site of suborbital passenger missions to the edge of space.
After launching, both SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two will return to land at Spaceport America for post-flight checks and re-flight.
Image: Spaceport America
Here's the next, cheapest flight you can get to the launch