After a rough 16 months, SpaceShipTwo rollout generates positive vibrations

In this photo from Virgin Galactic’s rollout ceremony, the VSS Unity rocket plane is on the left, the VMS Eve mothership is on the right, and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is on the dais. (Virgin Galactic photo)
MOJAVE, Calif. – This time around, Virgin Galactic took no chances with the weather.

When the first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was rolled out and christened Virgin Spaceship Enterprise in 2009, the craft sat out in Mojave’s December chill. A windstorm ended up spoiling the party and blowing away the tents that Virgin Galactic set up for the celebration.

For today’s christening of Virgin Spaceship Unity, the ceremonies were held indoors at the hangar used by Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing arm, known as The Spaceship Company. Not that the weather was anything to worry about: The show wrapped up in the middle of the afternoon, well before the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up. VSS Unity was even taken outside into the sunshine after the ceremonies wrapped up.

The smooth rollout may be a good omen for the months of testing that lie ahead. Nearly 16 months after the fatal breakup of VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic’s executives, employees, customers and partners say they’re looking forward to smooth sailing with VSS Unity. Here’s a roundup of observations gleaned during today’s activities:

Richard Branson
Richard Branson (GeekWire photo)
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic: Branson said up-and-down suborbital space tourism was just the first phase of his vision for Virgin Galactic. “Once you’ve got people in space … why shouldn’t we have point-to-point travel at tremendous speeds?” he said. He’s also thinking about sending people into orbit, addressing the orbital debris problem and heading off hazardous asteroids. Eventually, “we’d like to join the race for deep-space exploration,” he said.

George T. Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company: Whitesides confirmed that Branson’s Virgin Group and the Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments have put more than $500 million into Virgin Galactic so far. During today’s ceremony, he said it was a “hard day” when VSS Enterprise broke up, killing its co-pilot and injuring its pilot. But Virgin Galactic resolved to press on. “We would always remember the accident, but we would not be defined by it,” Whitesides said. Today was a good day, he said: “I don’t think I’ve been this excited since my wedding.”

Doug Shane, president of The Spaceship Company: As he stood in Virgin Galactic’s Mission Control room, Shane suggested it may not be long before VSS Unity begins flight tests. “This’ll be a hopping place come summertime,” he told reporters. Mission Control is also known as Oculus, which is apparently a reference to the iris that serves as an art motif for Virgin Galactic. Shane said Scaled Composites test pilot Pete Siebold, who was injured in the Enterprise’s breakup, is now “healthy and flying again, as far as I know.” However, Siebold won’t be flying Unity because the SpaceShipTwo test program has transitioned from Scaled to Virgin Galactic.

Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations: Moses, a veteran of the space shuttle program, said lots of incremental improvements have been made between Enterprise and Unity. One big improvement has to do with the hybrid rocket motor – which is back to using rubber-based rather than polyamide-based fuel, thanks to “major breakthroughs” in how the motor is put together. Years ago, there were concerns about vibration when the rocket was fired up. Now Moses says “it’s a magic-carpet, baby-smooth ride” – once you get past the initial blast of acceleration, that is.

Mike Masucci (Virgin Galactic photo)
Mike Masucci (Virgin Galactic photo)
Michael “Sooch” Masucci, Virgin Galactic test pilot: Masucci has been a member of Virgin Galactic’s pilot corps since 2013, and he says he can’t wait to fly Unity. Today’s rollout was particularly meaningful because one of Masucci’s fellow pilots, Mike Alsbury, died in the Enterprise’s breakup. “This vehicle represents not a culmination, but a beginning. It represents growth from a spot that could have been a stopping spot,” Masucci said. “We honor Mike and his memory and his efforts, and we will continue to do so as we press forward with this beautiful ship.”

Ron Rosano, Virgin Galactic customer: Rosano made his reservation for a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic five years ago, and now he works with charity called Galactic Unite. He saw today’s rollout as “the start of a new era.” The loss of the Enterprise in 2014 led some customers to drop out, but Rosano kept the faith. “The more I talk to the people who work here, and especially when I see the hardware, the more confidence I have,” he said.

Laura Chapman, material testing technician at The Spaceship Company: Today’s rollout marked “one of the proudest days

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