Sixteen months after the crash of their first spacecraft, on Friday, Virgin Galactic unveiled a new SpaceShipTwo, named Unity by British physicist Stephen Hawking, one of 700 people registered for the flight.
“I never thought that I would have the opportunity to see our beautiful planet from space or to look into infinity beyond its borders. Previously, it was the privilege of the astronauts, the lucky few, ”said Hawking during a recorded broadcast on the presentation of“ Unity ”in the aviation and space port in Mojave, California.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson had previously invited Hawking to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, and he said he plans to accept the offer.
“If I’m allowed to fly and Richard still agrees to take me, it’s an honor to fly on this spacecraft,” said Hawking.
We are entering a new space age, and I hope that this will help create a new unity. Space exploration already strongly unites. We cooperate so much between countries in space that on Earth we can only envy.
“Carrying more passengers in space will allow them and us to look at everything from a different point of view. This will help us bring a new understanding of our place on Earth and our responsibilities as its stewards. And this will help us recognize our place and future in space, where, I believe, our fate lies, ”said Hawking. The spacecraft was “christened” with a bottle of milk, like a bow to Branson's granddaughter, who celebrated her birthday on Friday. Another Virgin Galactic client, British singer Sarah Brightman, “forced” the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday”.
“I hope that there will be no problems, try to repeat it in future birthdays,” Branson joked.
In appearance, the new spacecraft resembles the flagship that crashed over Mojave in California on October 31, 2014, during the fourth test flight test. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who worked on the SpaceShipTwo developer and manufacturer of Scaled Composites, was killed in an accident. Pilot Peter Sebold managed to parachute to a safe place.
“Virgin Galactic took over the production and testing of future ships, a plan that accelerated after the accident,” said Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects, for Discovery News.
Doug Shane, who oversees the production of the spacecraft company, said that parts of the second ship were 75% ready at the time of the accident, which may have helped Virgin Galactic investors remain committed to the program.
The new spacecraft included many upgrades, some of which were planned before the accident, to facilitate operations and reduce costs, some were added as a result of the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that Alsbury, a very experienced pilot, prematurely released the lever, which kept the ship's tailpiece from turning forward. This allowed the tail end, called the feather, to turn forward, before their natural retention by aerodynamic forces. The feather, invented by Scaled founder Bert Rutan, is intended to facilitate the entry of the vessel into the atmosphere, by changing its shape, which will allow it to fall like a badminton shuttlecock. The co-pilot had to open the pen when the ship was moving at a speed of 1.4 Mach, the plan was that if the lock was not successful and the tail could not be deployed, the pilots would be able to stop the flight before going into space.
“The researchers found many influencing factors for the Olsbury error, all of which were reviewed by Virgin Galactic and analyzed by a team of external experts,” said Mike Moses, the former director of the space shuttle program, who now controls Virgin Galactic space flight operations.
The new SpaceShipTwo includes a feather lock, controlled by the onboard computer of the ship, which will not allow pilots to unlock the tail section prematurely.
“One of the reasons Scaled didn't do it in the first place is to try to simplify the design,” said Moses. “All you have to do now can prevent you from doing what you really want.”
“The pilots will have a mechanical safety net in case of a latch failure,” Moses added.
“Also, since the new analysis showed that the ship could have survived re-entering the tail section below, Virgin Galactic decided to keep the pen closed until the ship’s rocket engine died out. Pilots will have between three and five minutes in the event of a malfunction to correct problems before the pen is needed to re-enter, ”said Mike.
Managers and engineers also used crash information to detect other systems and processes that could be affected by a human error. Several minor changes were made, for example, another fixer preventing the pilot from deploying the chassis at the wrong time. Virgin Galactic also changed several switches to make it harder to confuse. “The question is how to prevent human errors,” Moses said. “We didn’t find any major components that need replacing, but we’ve found some things that we can do better.”
The Friday presentation in Mojave, California, marks the beginning of a new phase for Virgin Galactic, which plans to return to the test flight program fairly quickly, and carry out a test until the ship is ready to be put into commercial operation.
Virgin Galactic refuse to discuss a timeline when they can fly passengers. The company already has 700 customers waiting for their flights.
“I think we’ll be making progress pretty soon as we start flying,” said George Whitesides, the head of Virgin Galactic, to Discovery News.