Virgin Galactic’s newest, shiniest ship brings space tourism closer to reality

After a series of setbacks, the VSS Imagine will begin test flights as soon as this summer.

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Virgin Galactic, once a frontrunner in private space tourism before it was hobbled with a series of setbacks, is moving forward once again.

This morning the company unveiled its next-generation spaceship VSS Imagine, which will begin test flights as soon as this summer. The unveiling comes as Virgin Galactic strives to regain its leadership role in the nascent civilian aerospace industry.

The Imagine also marks the debut of the SpaceShip III vehicle class, the latest iteration of the Virgin fleet of spaceplanes which will use suborbital flights to briefly make paying customers spacefarers. The company will also have a test flight in May of the prior-generation VSS Unity, its first craft to reach the Air Force definition of the boundary between Earth and space.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Imagine

Virgin Galactic

What’s new - The company hopes to get back on track after a series of setbacks — including a fatal flight in 2014 — with the unveiling of its newest spaceship, the VSS Imagine. This is the first in Virgin’s SpaceShip III-class of orbital vehicles and is said to “enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate,” according to a Virgin Galactic press release.

But the most striking feature of Imagine and the whole Spaceship III line is clearly the new mirrored livery, which will perform the obvious function of protecting passengers from the deadly vacuum of space and the deadly heat of re-entry but it will be also constantly change color and appearance on the flight from Earth to space and back again. Just imagine how great it’ll look in the TikTok’s of the future and you’ll get what Virgin was going for here. It has a shiny reflective exterior similar to SpaceX’s Starship or that stupid Millennium bean sculpture in Chicago. Or aluminum foil.

Ground tests will begin soon, with drop-and-glide flights launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico expected this summer. The new ship design is meant to lay the foundation for future Virgin Galactic spaceships, which in turn will hopefully open up the long-awaited space tourism market.

VSS Imagine

Virgin Galactic

Here’s the background — Virgin Galactic was once the pioneer in the race to space tourism, but a fatal crash during a test flight in 2014 put things on hold for almost half a decade. The company began test flights again in 2018, but fell far behind Richard Branson’s rather optimistic projections on when it’ll send tourists into space.

The company hasn’t had a successful flight to space in two years with a test flight in December failing because of connectivity issues on the company’s VSS Unity spacecraft, and there are a number of milestones and tests that need to be completed before Branson will be allowed to fly — and even more benchmarks before paying customers will be allowed to step aboard.

What’s next - Manufacturing is already beginning on VSS Inspire, the second SpaceShip III-class ship, and a crucial next-next step towards scaling the space tourism market long-term. Virgin is aiming to eventually reach around 400 flights per year from each spaceport it will eventually operate out of (though there’s only Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico currently) and will need to grow its fleet significantly to pull that off.

First though, it needs to prove that it can even get to space at all with the new ships. The VSS Unity, a prior-generation SpaceShip II-class ship, has a scheduled test flight in May with Imagine getting airborne soon after.

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