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Virgin Galactic’s new spaceship VSS Imagine. Photo: Reuters

Virgin Galactic unveils new ship for space tourism, another step towards goal of daily flights

  • Testing of the VSS Imagine will start soon, after a few glitches and production delays caused by the pandemic
  • Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, hopes to run 400 space flights a year from New Mexico

Virgin Galactic has 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 toward efficient design and production”, the company said. 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 this summer 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 next year, when it will begin flight tests, Chief Executive Michael Colglazier said in an interview.

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

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. Photo: Virgin Galactic
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 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 last month.

Virgin Galactic’s chief executive Michael Colglazier. Photo: Virgin Galactic

“We are still planning and feel great about May as the next test flight,” Colglazier said. The company hadn’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 on 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 was also exploring whether to contract parts of the assembly work for its carrier “mother ships” which drop the spacecraft from high altitudes, Colglazier said.

Virgin Galactic’s latest ship, VSS Imagine. Photo: Reuters

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 late 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.