Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity successfully completes first flight

After two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of the carbon composite spaceplane’s flight test program.

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Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, NM, US) reported April 5 that the carbon composite SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity safely and successfully completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight. After two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of Unity’s flight test program.

The flight was also significant for Virgin Galactic’s Mojave based, sister manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company (Mojave, CA, US). Unity is the first vehicle to be built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by The Spaceship Company’s team of aerospace engineers and technicians. 

VSS Unity benefits from all the data and lessons gathered from the test program of her predecessor vehicle, VSS Enterprise, which unfortunately was destroyed during a 2014 test flight. 

VSS Unity’s flight was piloted by Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay. The craft took off attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

The mated vehicles climbed to a launch altitude of around 46,500 ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and executed a clean release of Unity. Unity accelerated to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn in an 80º climb. On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271 ft before readying for the downward return. At this stage, the vehicle’s tail booms were raised to a 60º angle to the fuselage, into the “feathered’” configuration. This design feature, which is key to a reliable and repeatable re-entry capability for a winged vehicle, incorporates additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident. At around 50,000 ft, the tail-booms were lowered again and Unity glided home to a smooth runway landing.

The flight generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance for Virgin Galactic and marks a key moment for the test flight program.