The news: This will be the fourth powered test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane (called VSS Unity) and its first since July. If it all goes to plan, the two pilots will experience an extended sensation of weightlessness and some “pretty spectacular views,” Virgin said.
The aims: Virgin Galactic says its goal is to fly higher and faster than previous flights, going much further than its previous record of 52 kilometers (32 miles) and burning the rocket motor for longer than they ever have in flight before—up to a full minute.
This will allow the company to collect important data, specifically on supersonic handling qualities and thermal dynamics. It will also carry heavier loads than before, to simulate the weight of passengers it plans to transport on suborbital flights.
The background: It’s taken many years of meticulous planning, design, and engineering work to reach this stage, not to mention overcoming huge setbacks. The previous iteration of the VSS Unity—the VSS Enterprise—was destroyed in a fatal crash in October 2014. Virgin Galactic is also racing Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to provide flights for wealthy space tourists.
The company has a record of overpromising and underdelivering over many years. Founder Richard Branson promised that suborbital flights would be operating by way back in 2009, so a degree of healthy skepticism is understandable. All we can do now is wait and see what happens tomorrow.