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Virgin Galactic delays commercial space flights to end of 2022 as spacecraft are refurbished

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Virgin Galactic says it will be delaying the beginning of its commercial space flights to the fourth quarter of 2022, sending the firm’s shares falling 13 percent after closing hours.

Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company added that it will now begin work refurbishing and improving its spacecraft and carrier aircraft. 

Virgin Galactic had planned to begin the eight-month ‘enhancement’ period after the next spaceflight, called Unity 23. 

But the company said a recent test ‘flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints’ in its vehicles that will require ‘further physical inspection.’ 

Work on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft VSS Unity and carrier aircraft VMS Eve will now begin this month, meaning that mid-2022 would be the earliest that the Unity 23 may fly. 

‘The re-sequencing of our enhancement period and the Unity 23 flight underscores our safety-first procedures, provides the most efficient path to commercial service, and is the right approach for our business and our customers,’ Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement.

Shares of Virgin Galactic dropped as much as 11 percent in after hours trading from its close of $24.06, following the company's announcement to push back the start of commercial flights to space until mid-2022

Shares of Virgin Galactic dropped as much as 11 percent in after hours trading from its close of $24.06, following the company’s announcement to push back the start of commercial flights to space until mid-2022

Branson made his historic trip to the edge of space on July 11, travelling 50 miles above the New Mexico desert, and kickstarting a new era of space tourism

Branson made his historic trip to the edge of space on July 11, travelling 50 miles above the New Mexico desert, and kickstarting a new era of space tourism

The Virgin Galactic flight that took Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space was being investigated by authorities over claims it veered off its designated route mid-flight

The Virgin Galactic flight that took Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space was being investigated by authorities over claims it veered off its designated route mid-flight

Virgin Galactic said 'the flight's ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan' but added it 'did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.' Pictured is a graphic showing the flight trajectory

Virgin Galactic said ‘the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan’ but added it ‘did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.’ Pictured is a graphic showing the flight trajectory

Shares of Virgin Galactic fell as much as 13 percent after trading hours today, from its close of $24.06. The stock is up just one percent for 2021 as of Thursday’s close, effectively unchanged since 2020’s fourth quarter.

Unity 23 will now take flight after the enhancement process is over, which Virgin Galactic said is ‘designed to further increase margins that will enable improved reliability, durability and reduced maintenance requirements.’ 

The enhancement period was supposed to begin in September, but the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded Virgin Galactic for most of last month to investigate an issue that occurred during the flight on July 11th.

Sir Richard Branson made his historic trip to the edge of space that day, traveling 50 miles above the New Mexico desert, and kickstarting a new era of space tourism. 

Sir Richard Branson described the spaceflight as an "experience of a lifetime" -- and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America

Sir Richard Branson described the spaceflight as an ‘experience of a lifetime’ — and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America

At the time all seemed to go as planned, with the mothership taking off as expected, and the spaceplane being released at 50,000 ft to continue its 40 mile journey to space, before safely gliding back to land on a runway at Spaceport America.

However, a report suggests that in the cockpit there were warning lights that the spacecraft was veering off course, and without action could struggle on its return.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will charge customers $446,000 for a ticket 

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will charge customers $446,000 to fly into space. 

The reopening of ticket sales comes as the company looks to cash in on the success of July’s crewed test flight. 

The figure is almost 200,000 more than the company was charging in 2014 before it suspended sales after the crash of its first space plane, VSS Enterprise.

About 600 people have tickets from the earlier round of sales.

‘We are excited to announce the reopening of sales effective today,’ said chief executive Michael Colglazier. 

‘We are delighted to open the door to an entirely new industry and consumer experience.’ 

Virgin Galactic said ‘the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from its initial plan’ but added it ‘did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.’

The firm says it is working with the FAA on its investigation of the deviation in the return route back to land on the runway, and on improving communications.   

In a statement on the FAA investigation last month, Virgin Galactic acknowledged that ‘the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace’, but confirmed this was ‘for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace.’

Virgin Galactic said that ‘when the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.’

It added that ‘at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public.’

The company said it is ‘working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights,’ including on alerting them of any issues.

According to the report, a red light flashed on the ship’s console during the flight, indicating an ‘entry glide-cone warning.’

This light is a warning to the pilots that the flight path was too shallow and that the ships nose wasn’t vertical enough – giving them time to fix any problems to avoid an emergency landing in the desert as they glided back to Earth from space.

At the time all seemed to go as planned, with the mothership taking off as expected, and the spaceplane being released at 50,000 ft to continue its 40 mile journey to space, before safely gliding back to land on a runway at Spaceport America

At the time all seemed to go as planned, with the mothership taking off as expected, and the spaceplane being released at 50,000 ft to continue its 40 mile journey to space, before safely gliding back to land on a runway at Spaceport America

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which oversees commercial air and spaceflight in the US, confirmed  in September that the spaceplane 'deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance' and did so for about a minute and 41 seconds

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which oversees commercial air and spaceflight in the US, confirmed  in September that the spaceplane ‘deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance’ and did so for about a minute and 41 seconds

Company procedures gave them two options, according to the New Yorker report, ‘implement immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor.’

Aborting would have triggered a return to Earth and stopped Branson from reaching the edge of space, but was the safest available option at the time.  

It appears the pilots decided it was safe enough to continue, and were able to make a successful return to land after taking Branson into space.

Branson had moved his flight up July 11 to beat Jeff Bezos into space. He had originally planned to go later in the summer, but made the change when Bezos announced he would go up with Blue Origin on July 20.

VMS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo class of spaceplane, took off strapped to its mothership, VMS Eve on July 11 from Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.  

Virgin Galactic said 'the flight's ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan' but added it 'did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace'

Virgin Galactic said ‘the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan’ but added it ‘did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace’

The firm said it was working with the FAA on its investigation of the deviation in the return route back to land on the runway, and on improving communications

The firm said it was working with the FAA on its investigation of the deviation in the return route back to land on the runway, and on improving communications

Sir Richard Branson’s message to ‘the next generation of dreamers’

I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. It was magical.

I was honored to test the incredible customer experience onboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceship VSS Unity as part of this remarkable crew of mission specialists – and now astronauts.

How you feel when you look down on Earth is impossible to put into words, it’s just indescribable beauty. I can’t wait for you all to get up there.   

My mission statement, which I wrote inside my spacesuit, is to turn the dream of space travel into a reality – for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone. 

I said a message to all children while I was in space: I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.

Having flown to space, I can see even more clearly how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth. 

We are here to make space more accessible to all and turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow.

Imagine a world where people of all ages and backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity have equal access to space. They will in turn, inspire us all back here on Earth.

If you’ve ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. 

It was the first fully crewed test flight for the Virgin Galactic spaceplane.

Branson was joined by three other employees of the space tourism firm in the cabin to test the customer experience, including seat quality.

Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci were in the cockpit flying the space plane after it separated from VMS Eve.

Virgin Galactic operates a piloted vehicle, unlike Blue Origin and SpaceX who have a fully automated system managed from the ground.

Previously Sir Richard has said that ‘a private program can’t afford to lose anybody’, referring to the risks involved in human spaceflight.

In the era of government-backed space travel, about 1.4 per cent of all Soviet, Russian and US trips to space resulted in fatality.

Virgin Galactic isn’t a stranger to losing people to space flight, after pilot Michael Alsbury was killed and co-pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured when SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise disintegrated during a powered atmospheric test.

It happened over California and was due to premature deployment of a feathering system in October 2014.

Another test flight, in 2018, saw Mackay and Masucci pilot a SpaceShipTwo vessel that veered out of control, spinning and tumbling in mid-air before they regained stability and helped it land safely on the ground.

This all happened during the test-flight stage, with each new version fixing issues from earlier flights and spaceplanes. Branson’s flight was still considered a test flight, but is towards the end of the testing phase.

The next test flight will also be the first one to generate revenue for the space firm, that formed in 2004 and first reached space in 2018.  

The firm hopes to start launching paying customers into space as early as next year, with the 600 ‘Future Astronaut’ ticket holders expected to be among the first

The FAA has now given Virgin Galactic its authorization to return to flight after completing the investigation. 

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future



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