This Is How Virgin Galactic Makes Its Spaceship Unity Safer


Nearly 16 months after the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic's Enterprise during a test flight, the spaceflight company on Friday unveiled the spaceship's newest successor, the Spaceship Unity.

The announcement is a testament to Virgin Galactic's determination to launch commercial space flights and set off its space tourism dream.

Spaceship Unity, the company's second SpaceShipTwo after Enterprise, will not be blasted off into space right away, but it will be tested on the ground for full-vehicle examination. If these tests prove to be successful, Virgin Galactic will carry out captive carry flights and glide testing.

With the latest announcement comes apprehension: how is the new spacecraft much safer than its predecessor?

Same Design, Additional Safety Measures

Days after the tragic crash, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides had promised that a new spacecraft was in the works.

"We have a new spaceship that's going to be ready in a few months. So we're going to make sure we get that one as safe as we can and keep going," said Whitesides in November 2014.

Months after, the company has followed through its word with Spaceship Unity.

Unity shares a nearly identical design and model as the Enterprise. The new spaceship's manufacturing had started in 2012, before the tragic crash or any redesigns occurred.

However, despite little difference between the two ships' appearance, there is one thing that sets them apart: Virgin Galactic has added small safety features inside Unity.

Whitesides said engineers have added a crucial pin to avoid the accidental unlocking of a feathering mechanism on the spaceship's tail. This was what caused the tragic crash in the first place.

The feather-locking system helps in the descent of spaceships. In Oct. 31, 2014, Enterprise's former co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely deployed the feathering mechanism while still reeling from a powerful ascent.

Alsbury was killed in the tragic crash. Pilot Peter Siebold survived the incident after being thrown from the aircraft 10 miles above the Mojave Desert.

Now, Unity's new mechanical pin prevents the feather lever from moving when the spaceship is flying in an unsafe flight procedure.

Safety Is A Priority

While the crash was acknowledged as a piloting error, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also puts the blame on Scaled Composites, the aerospace company that built SpaceShipTwo and hired the pilots.

Additionally, the NTSB cited the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for lax regulations.

The FAA's guidelines do not want to hamper innovations in spaceflight manufacturing with restrictions. There are regulations around national security, the safety of the environment, and the safety of people on the ground, but the companies have freedom when it comes to test flights.

University of Southern California's Director Thomas Anthony said they expect more spaceflight regulations on the industry.

"Safety is always a balancing act, even with commercial aviation," said Anthony.

Enthusiasts Still Want Commercial Spaceflight

Before the tragic accident in October 2014, about 700 customers had signed up for commercial spaceflight. Each ticket costs about $200,000 to $250,000 (£140,000 to £170,000).

Only a few dozen people asked for a refund. Whitesides said most people remained with their decision to buy the ticket and stick with the company. Additional sales have also made up for the refunds.

"Obviously it was a tragedy for the program and especially for the pilot that was killed," said Bob Kulick, the co-owner of a pizza chain in Texas called Cici's Pizza.

Kulick, however, said the future space trip is an ultimate goal.

"This is the culmination of a lifelong dream," added Kulick. "I think there's a lot of people who are the same way."

As Virgin Galactic billionaire owner Richard Branson revealed Spaceship Unity on Friday, prominent names in the field of science also voiced out supports for space tourism.

"The Theory of Everything" author Stephen Hawking said he would want to experience flying on Unity.

"If I am able to go, and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship," said Hawking.

Lastly, Branson is confident that spaceflight will be within reach.

"Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now," said Branson. "By doing so, [it] can bring positive change to life on Earth."

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