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Verging on the ultimate passenger experience

Posted 17 September 2018 · Add Comment

Virgin Galactic will soon launch its commercial space flights for paying passengers. Although the company says it can’t announce an official launch date until it has completed its current step-by-step test flight programme, it is widely believed space flights may occur later this year. Steve Nichols reports.

On May 29, Virgin Galactic completed the second successful rocket-powered flight of its spaceship VSS Unity.
Following the inaugural rocket-powered flight in April, this was a next-step as the aerospace company moves through a sequence of incremental tests toward achieving its goal to reach space.
In an accident in October 2014, the VSS Enterprise, SpaceShipTwo, suffered a catastrophic in-flight break-up and crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.
While customers patiently await their flights and the ability to connect globally as a future astronaut community, the company says it is prioritising safety and systematic testing as it prepares to make history in commercial spaceflight.
For $250,000 you will be able to climb aboard the VSS Unity at New Mexico’s Spaceport America for the ride of a lifetime, flying to an altitude of 110km and at a top speed of 4,000km/h.
But the flight is just part of the overall package. Speaking at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg in April, Adam Wells, head of design, Virgin Galactic, said a lot of thought has been given to every single element, citing parallels between Virgin’s work to improve commercial airline customer experience and a vision for optimal comfort in spaceflight.
“Virgin Galactic’s unique in-flight experience has led us to develop new and original products for our seating and cabin systems that will support and enhance our customers’ spaceflights,” Wells said.
“This will include a variety of ‘g’ scenarios that customers will experience – initially high g under rocket power on the way up and again high g when SpaceShipTwo re-enters Earth’s atmosphere on its return – and for the cabin itself, during the microgravity phase in space.”
Wells added: “We’ve created a cabin that will work in all orientations and is optimised to really celebrate this unique situation, delivering plenty of room to enjoy microgravity and to absorb the amazing views back towards Earth from space.”
Somewhere between 600-700 customers are waiting patiently to fly with Virgin Galactic from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
So what will the flight experience be like?
Customers will be taken out to the VSS Unity spaceship, board and fly attached to the White Knight 2 mothership to around 50,000ft where Unity will be released. Then there will be a countdown; the rocket motor will fire, pushing them back into their seats.
The g forces will then start to load as the vehicle goes straight upwards, faster than the speed of sound.
Customers will be aware that the air outside is getting thinner, and then the rocket will shut down, after which they will be weightless and able to get out of their seats, float around in the cabin and look back at Earth, all whilst the vehicle continues to move upwards.
But what about the return journey?
When the wing is feathered and the ship starts to renter the Earth’s atmosphere, customers will get another interesting experience. They will start to hear pings as air molecules hit the spaceship. Unity will then de-feather its wings and glide in to land.
Long-term we might see Virgin Galactic setting up a spaceport in the Middle East, possibly Abu Dhabi as originally planned.
Virgin Galactic is backed by Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments, which bought a 31.8% stake (initially $280 million) in Virgin Galactic in 2010, increased to 37.8% in 2011. The overall investment is now believed to be around $380 million.
In October 2017, news also broke that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund plans to invest about $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) in Richard Branson’s three commercial space companies, including Virgin Galactic.
According to the agreement, the kingdom’s fund also has an option to invest an additional $480 million in “space services”.
 

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