ABU DHABI / Bloomberg
Bookings from would-be space tourists planning to fly with Richard Bransonâ€™s Virgin Galactic Ltd. have recovered almost to the level seen before the fatal breakup of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in October 2014.
About 25 of 700 fee-paying clients withdrew from the program after the crash in the Mojave Desert in California caused it to be put on hold just months before the first commercial flight, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said in Abu Dhabi.
â€œWe had a little dip right after the accident, but honestly weâ€™re almost all the way back now,â€ Whitesides said at a conference organised by the International Civil Aviation Organization and United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. â€œItâ€™s looking very good. Thereâ€™s a global desire to experience space.â€
Some of those who were refunded their deposits after the crash have since asked for their tickets back as Virgin Galacticâ€™s work on a replacement space-launched plane advances, according to Whitesides. â€œThey see the new vehicle and are excited about the progress that weâ€™re making now,â€ he said.
SpaceShipTwo co-pilot Michael Alsbury died when the vehicle was torn apart after he prematurely unlocked a braking mechanism. The failure by Scaled Composites LLC, the craftâ€™s designer, to protect against the mistake was a probable cause of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board has said. Virgin is making good progress with ground testing of the new craft, unveiled last month and named â€˜Unity,â€™ according to Whitesides. He said the company is getting closer to the first flight, while declining to disclose the schedule.
Early flight tests will see Unity remain mated to mothership WhiteKnightTwo, before the programme shifts to glide testing and eventually rock-powered trials.
Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group. It is developing commercial spacecraft and aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites.
Further in the future, Virgin Galactic plans to provide orbital human spaceflights as well.
The company also hopes to develop an orbital launch vehicle (LauncherOne).
SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spacecraft, isair launched from beneath a carrier airplane known as White Knight Two.
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, had initially suggested that he hoped to see a maiden flight by the end of 2009, but this date has been delayed on a number of occasions, most recently by the October 2014 in-flight loss of SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise.