Virgin Galactic rolls out first SpaceShip III spacecraft, 'VSS Imagine'
March 30, 2021
— Virgin Galactic is ready for you to "Imagine" your ride to space.
The space tourism company on Tuesday (March 30) revealed the "VSS Imagine," its first Spaceship III, a shiny new model of its suborbital spacecraft designed to fly passengers and payloads on brief trips into space. The new Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) has the same overall outline as the previous SpaceShipTwo, but features a modular construction and a full-body, mirror-like finish.
"Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves. As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, 'Imagine' is not just beautiful to look at, but represents Virgin Galactic's growing fleet of spaceships," Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement.
Like the X-PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne and experimental SpaceShipTwo that came before it, SpaceShip III will take off from a runway mounted under a carrier aircraft. Once at altitude, the winged spacecraft will drop away from its mothership and the two pilots aboard SpaceShip III will ignite a rocket motor, accelerating the vehicle toward the edge of space.
Up to six passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth before the spacecraft feathers its tail booms for the re-entry into the atmosphere. The vehicle will then glide back to a runway touchdown.
Since 2004, Virgin Galactic has sold more than 600 tickets for the experience, for prices between $200,000 and $250,000. The company is now accepting $1,000 fully-refundable deposits to hold a place in line for when ticket sales resume at an increased per seat cost.
The new VSS Imagine and its next-to-be-built sister ship, the VSS Inspire, benefit from the experience that Virgin Galactic gained from flying and servicing its two SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, the ill-fated VSS Enterprise and still-flying VSS Unity. The primary advancement with the new SpaceShip III-class vehicles is improved maintenance access, which is intended to increase the flight rate.
Virgin Galactic is targeting 400 SpaceShip flights per year, per spaceport, after a multi-year development effort.
The VSS Imagine also debuts enhancements to the Virgin Galactic astronaut experience. The new SpaceShip III livery is designed to reflect the surrounding environment, changing color and appearance as it climbs from the ground upwards to space. The exterior coating offers thermal protection while "reflecting our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight," the company said.
"VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space," said CEO Michael Colglazier. "Their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight."
As VSS Imagine begins ground tests, manufacturing will progress on VSS Inspire at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Glide tests with Imagine are slated to follow in the summer.
"Our current flight test protocol for the first SpaceShip III vehicle calls for four glide flights and four powered flights, and we expect the spaceflights will be revenue-producing," Colglazier said on an earnings call with investors in late February. "Following our initial glide flight test, there will be a multi-month period of analysis and modification to the spaceship before we bring it out for our final glide test and power test."
Flight tests are also to resume with VSS Unity, after a rocket motor failed to ignite on a December spaceflight attempt. Unity is next set to fly from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic's base of commercial operations, in May.
Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShip III-class spacecraft, VSS Imagine, was revealed on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Virgin Galactic)