VSS Unity. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

A little over a year ago, Virgin Galactic was looking like it might have to get out of the space business. A disastrous test flight of the company's SpaceShipTwo prototype spacecraft ended in a crash that killed one test pilot and injured another. And that was the only spacecraft Virgin Galactic had.

Fast-forward 15 months, though, and Virgin Galactic is back (baby)!

Last week, Virgin pulled the curtain on SpaceShipTwo's replacement, a new vessel dubbed Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity. The new vessel was built entirely by Virgin's sister company, The Spaceship Company, now that Northrop Grumman (NOC 0.25%) has exited the joint venture that built the original SpaceShipTwo.

Like its predecessor, VSS Unity is a 60-foot-long spaceplane with a 42-foot wingspan. Like its predecessor, it will hitch a ride aboard its mothership, VMS Eve, to an altitude of 50,000 feet before lighting its own rocket engines for the final leap to space. And like its predecessor, VMS Unity is designed to carry a crew of two and up to six paying passengers on a 30-minute flight into space -- there to experience "several minutes" of zero gravity before re-entering Earth's atmosphere and gliding to a landing, unpowered.

Tell us something we don't know
In fact, even without Northrop Grumman's participation, Virgin Galactic says most aspects of VSS Unity are unchanged from the previous SpaceShipTwo's design (save that the design has been tweaked to prevent a recurrence of the accident that destroyed the original).

All of this we know already. What we don't know -- and what Virgin Galactic declined to tell us last week -- is when VSS Unity will begin flying passengers into space.


Last we heard, more than 700 passengers had signed up to pay as much as $250,000 apiece for tickets to fly round-trip aboard VSS Unity and its (yet-to-be-built) sister ships. As recently as January 2015 -- more than a year ago, but still post-SpaceShipTwo crash -- the company was still planning to begin commercial spaceflights sometime in 2016. But that target date now seems to be at risk.

As Virgin Galactic head Sir Richard Branson explained: "If you are expecting SpaceShipTwo to blast off and head straight to space on the day we unveil her, let us disillusion you now." Cautions Branson: "lots and lots of testing" lies ahead before SpaceShipTwo gets anywhere near space:

  • On-ground testing.
  • A "captive carry flight, during which SpaceShipTwo stays firmly mated to her mothership, WhiteKnightTwo."
  • Then "several glide flights" in which "our new spaceship flies freely."
  • And finally, "rocket-powered test flights," in "a thoughtful and steady progression," each rising "a little higher, a little faster" than the last, until VSS Unity finally "eventually reaches 50 miles" above the Earth.

Branson gives no timeline for these events, nor does he tally up the various timelines to come up with a new estimate for when Virgin Galactic will begin commercial flights. We presume that, until stated otherwise, Virgin Galactic is still aiming for a date sometime within the confines of 2016, but Branson avers: "This isn't a race." 

Except that it sort of is.

Just because you aren't racing doesn't mean you can't lose
The wild card here is that, while Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic may not be racing to space, another company appears to be: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

Like Branson (but unlike rival Elon Musk, head of SpaceX), Amazon.com (AMZN 0.63%) CEO Bezos has directed Blue Origin to focus specifically on developing spacecraft designed for space tourism. Last year, Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft (also equipped to carry six passengers) made its first fully automated launch into space and immediate relanding -- then relaunched and relanded the same spacecraft a couple of months later.

Blue Origin hasn't released a target date for starting space tourism flights. But the company is moving rapidly toward that target -- and so far, without mishap. There's every possibility, therefore, that Blue Origin will begin operations before Virgin Galactic gets the kinks worked out of its own spaceship.

The moral of this story: Sometimes the race really does go to the swift. And right now, Blue Origin is moving more swiftly than Virgin Galactic.

BLUE ORIGIN: Still top o' the heap in space tourism. BLUE ORIGIN VIDEO STILL.