Virgin Galactic has revealed the flight window for the first rocket-powered flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft from the shiny new Spaceport America in New Mexico. The ship could be in the air as early as December 11.
This flight will be the third for Unity out of the future passenger spaceport, but the last two have been gliding flights, not propulsive ones. This will be the first time Unity has hit the throttle in nearly two years — back when it touched the edge of space at something like Mach 2.9.
Since then the company and its aircraft have moved home, from Mojave, California to the spaceport in New Mexico, where it hopes eventually passengers will come and lounge before taking off on a brief visit to space.
The glides, in which Unity is taken to a high altitude by a carrier craft, the VMS Eve, and let go to perform a controlled descent to Earth, show that everything is bolted on tightly and ready for the more substantial rigors of rocket thrust.
Originally this powered flight was intended to happen a bit earlier in the year, but COVID-19-related precautions led to delays. But weather permitting, next week should see Unity flying again.
This flight won’t be strictly for testing purposes, though: It will be taking up several payloads under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which contracts with smaller launch providers to perform experiments in and near space. Other aspiring space-travel companies, like Blue Origin, have also taken up payloads for brief visits to the edge of the atmosphere.
Of course COVID-19 is still a serious issue, so Virgin Galactic is limiting exposure by minimizing people on site: no media or guests, only essential personnel.