December 3, 2023

Virgin Galactic is preparing to take more tourists to the edge of space, as it works with Boeing to build two new “ships” that will take rocket-powered spaceplanes to the fore. It’s all part of the plan to hit 400 rides a year: every day and twice on Sundays, maybe.

The VG approach, performed multiple times with test crews and founder Richard Branson himself aboard, has a spacecraft strapped to the belly of a larger custom aircraft, giving the former a running start and bypassing the necessity of accelerating the rocket through the densest part of the atmosphere.

Although the VMS Eve is certainly an interesting aircraft involved in a clear future endeavor – namely, space tourism – it has been in service since 2008. While its limited flights have barely made an impact on its life, the years since have resulted in many of improvements and efficiencies that can be incorporated into later trades, and it is time to build them in preparation for business operations.

To that end, VG has tapped into Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing company that originally focused on cutting-edge autonomous aircraft, to build two of these production models by 2025. It’s a bit odd, given that Aurora’s experience is essentially building drones without A smaller pilot, not as massive and unusual as this craft, but the company has probably incorporated more than a little Boeing DNA since its acquisition in 2017.

A VG representative said this new craft is an “evolution, not a redesign” of Eve, and will not bear a new label (technically, Eve is a WhiteKnightTwo model, an evolution of one white knight Designed by Bert Rutan years earlier.)

This explains why the CG view of the new vehicle is structurally identical to the old one, although it is unclear why they seem to have drawn it in SketchUp:

CG rendering of a VMS Eve aircraft. Note the new purple “livestock”. This craft Not Sponsored by Yahoo.

In a press release, CEO Michael Colglazier said the new aircraft will be “faster to produce, easier to maintain and will allow us to
She flies a lot of missions every year. This reflects improvements to the spacecraft, which VG President Mike Moses described last year as being more focused on facilitating commercial operations than on improving performance or “fixing” anything.

Although I asked, it’s still not clear what the new vehicle’s designation will be – it appears to be unstable at the moment, and will only be revealed when the vehicle itself is launched. It’s not necessarily important, but it’s good to know if it’s going to be something like WhiteKnightTwo.One or WhiteKnightThree. Maybe not.

The goal of these production models is to reach the target of 400 flights per year, a target that cannot be reached with the test fleet. Thousands of seats a year mean lower prices, although it’s still likely some time before regular folks can go into the space instead of renting a cabin for the weekend.

To be clear, this is very different from Virgin Orbit’s Air Launch System, which is similar in principle but completely different company and purpose, using a modified 747 to give thrust to the orbital launch vehicle.

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