May 01, 2017


Before the first glide flight of VSS Unity, we shared a roadmap of our testing plan program. With several successful flights now in the books, our pilots, engineers, and mission controllers are getting prepared to take the next steps forward in the test program. One of these steps will be to test the mechanics of SpaceShipTwo’s re-entry system, called simply “the feather,” in flight.

In human spaceflight, ascent is only half the battle; at the end of the mission, vehicle and crew need to make a safe descent as well. Coming back to Earth safely poses just as much of a technical challenge as getting to space in the first place. After all, every bit of energy that went into accelerating the spaceship up to supersonic speeds and space altitudes needs to be safely dissipated so that the vehicle can come to a slow and gentle stop back on terra firma.

Historically, this challenge has been met with one of two solutions: winged vehicles like NASA’s space shuttle or capsules as used in the Apollo program. In a sense, SpaceShipTwo’s feather system seeks to enable the craft to use aspects of both of these technologies, using VSS Unity’s wings during atmospheric phases of the mission, then reconfiguring the vehicle by folding up its twin tail booms in order to make the vehicle behave more like a capsule during atmospheric re-entry.

Rigorous tests of the feather system in the air will complement extensive testing already completed on the ground and improvements to the system, including an automated lock mechanism.  In upcoming flight tests, VSS Unity will activate its feather system shortly after release from carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, to test how the feather system functions under flight conditions and evaluates the flying qualities of VSS Unity while the feather is raised.  The feather will be raised at lower altitudes—and consequently thicker atmosphere—than would be the case during a full mission to space. This will provide a rigorous test of the feather system in the air, complementing extensive testing already completed on the ground.

Our vehicle and crew are getting ready for the next steps in the test program, and we look forward to seeing the vehicle in flight once again. Please stay tuned to this site and our social media channels (TwitterInstagramFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn) for more information as our flight testing program progresses. As usual, we will post flight test information on Twitter in real time.