As it rolled onto the tarmac of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s newest vessel for cosmic travel revealed itself to the planet. Towed by an exclusive Astronaut Edition Range Rover, the gleaming hull of the VSS Imagine caught the reflections of the surrounding sky in brilliant azure hues.
This mirror-like livery isn’t just for thermal protection, mind you, but to catch the eye and impress upon the viewer what is possible for humanity. One thing was evident upon its reveal: we are looking at the future.
Dubbing themselves “the world’s first commercial spaceline,” it’s clear Virgin Galactic boasts no small goals, and VSS Imagine is their next step in conquering the heavens. As the first of the next-generation SpaceShip III class of spacecraft, what separates VSS Imagine from its predecessor, VSS Unity, is its turnaround time — both in how quickly it can be manufactured and also the time of maintenance required between each flight.
Learning from Unity these SpaceShip III class vessels will be built with a modular approach, with sections/components (e.g. fuselage, cabin, wingbody, tail booms, etc.) built in parallel instead of sequentially, as was the case with Unity.
While Unity’s next spaceflight is scheduled for May, Virgin Galactic is hoping Imagine will take its first flight sometime this summer from this same famed Spaceport America outside Las Cruces, New Mexico—the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
The $218.5 million facility, built on some 18,000 acres of the Jornada del Muerto desert basin (near White Sands Missile Range, therefore under restricted air space), features state-of-the art flight training facilities, a luxury VIP lounge with panoramic desert views and a 12,000- foot runway—an integral component to Virgin Galactic reaching its lofty goals of flying 400 space flights every year.
Carried to approximately 45,000-feet by another aircraft dubbed a mothership, Imagine is then dropped as its singular rocket blasts the vessel into suborbital space, offering its six passengers several minutes of weightlessness and mind-bending views of Planet Earth. How much will this 90-minute flight cost you? Oh, about $250,000 per passenger. So far about 600 wealthy future astronauts have signed up.
The Big Picture goal of the promising spaceline is to provide affordable and safe launch opportunities both for private individuals and for research payloads, using reusable spacecraft. Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, has said he wants the company to fly more people to space in its first few years of service than have ever been there throughout all of human history. You know, small goals.
“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,” Branson gushed.
“As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships…. All great achievements, creations and changes start with an idea. Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.”