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Virgin Galactic all set for fourth suborbital flight

virgin galactic
Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its fourth mission in just four months, and the launch window for this suborbital journey opens on Friday, September 8th. The company, founded by Richard Branson, will once again take flight from the Spaceport America runway in New Mexico.

The commander of Galactic 03 will be Italian pilot Nicola Pecile. Pecile, a remarkable Italian talent, who has been flying for Virgin Galactic since the summer of 2015. His journey into space began in the inaugural Galactic 01 commercial mission, where he flew alongside Commander Mike Masucci to an altitude exceeding 85 km. In Galactic-03, roles in the cockpit will be reversed, with Pecile commanding Unity and Masucci serving as the pilot. Joining them in flight will be astronaut instructor Colin Bennett.

virgin galactic pilots
Chief Pilot, Dave Mackay (middle left) and Nicola Pecile (middle right). They are flanked by pilots, Mike Masucci (left) and 'CJ' Sturckow (right). Image credit: Virgin Galactic

The success of Virgin Galactic in recent months can be attributed to the exceptional skills and dedication of its pilots. In Virgin Galactic's vision of space tourism, pilots play a pivotal role in suborbital flights. Unlike automated systems, Unity is manually piloted, placing the pilot at the heart of each Virgin Galactic mission.

virgin galactic cockpit
A view inside the cockpit. Image credit: Virgin Galactic

But what makes this journey possible is the remarkable spacecraft, VSS Unity. This spacecraft represents a significant milestone in the development of suborbital space tourism. It is part of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo program, which began in the mid-2000s with the goal of creating a reusable suborbital spaceplane for passenger journeys to the edge of space.

Before launching into commercial service, VSS Unity underwent an extensive series of test flights, including captive-carry flights, glide flights, and powered flights. These tests provided valuable data on the spacecraft's performance and safety under various conditions.

The development process wasn't without its challenges. Following a tragic test flight accident in 2014, Virgin Galactic implemented safety improvements and refined the spacecraft's design to ensure the utmost safety for future passengers.

virgin galactic crash
Debris near the crash site of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in California on 1 November 2014. Image credit: Lucy Nicholson (Reuters)

After successful testing and certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Virgin Galactic began offering commercial spaceflights to paying passengers. The spacecraft can carry up to six passengers and two pilots on each journey.

Virgin Galactic's commitment to pushing the boundaries of private space exploration extends beyond VSS Unity. The company has plans to continue developing and expanding its suborbital space tourism services. This includes the potential introduction of new spacecraft designs, such as the "Delta class" shuttles which could enhance the frequency and accessibility of suborbital flights.

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