Virgin Galactic has come one step closer to full commercial operations as it relocates its SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, from the company’s manufacturing facility in Mojave, California, to its Spaceport America’s Gateway to Space building in New Mexico. Carried by its mothership, VMS Eve, the suborbital passenger spacecraft touched down on February 13, 2020, at 3:49 pm MT.
According to Virgin Galactic, Thursday’s captive flight was more than ferrying VSS Unity to the company’s commercial headquarters. With Italian Air Force Test Pilot Nicola “Stick” Pecile and Chief Pilot Dave “Mac” Mackay at the controls of the spaceplane, and Mike “Sooch” Masucci and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow piloting VMS Eve, the three-hour flight was also a chance for engineers to run extended tests on Unity at high altitude and subzero temperatures – something not possible on suborbital rocket-powered test flights.
Such captive flights will be repeated a number of times as Virgin Galactic goes into the final phase of its flight test program. After the operations and flight crews have familiarized themselves with the airspace and ground control, they will proceed to glide tests of SpaceShipTwo ahead of rocket-powered test flights and then the final spaceship cabin and customer experience evaluations.
Despite the relocation, the company says that the spacecraft and its mothership will periodically return to the Mojave facility for vehicle maintenance and upgrades, and to support the testing of new spaceplanes currently being built.
“This truly is the dawn of a new era for the commercial space sector,” says Dan Hicks, Spaceport America’s Executive Director. “We are tremendously proud of our foundational partner Virgin Galactic – as we see and support their historic progress in making human space flight a reality for our beautiful world. The New Mexico and Spaceport America leadership will continue our strong support for our visionary Virgin Galactic teammates, and we are looking forward to an exciting 2020.”