Richard Branson’s space tourism firm Virgin Galactic is unveiling a new space plane dubbed VSS Imagine on Tuesday, the first SpaceShip III addition to the company’s growing fleet of suborbital vehicles. It’s a shiny, chrome-colored ship designed for quicker reuse than SpaceShipTwo, the current centerpiece of the company’s effort to kickstart its space tourism business in 2022.
“Imagine will be the first of our SpaceShip III’s to come join the fleet,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier tells The Verge. “It will be followed up by Inspire, which we’re pivoting our manufacturing now.”
Functionally, SpaceShip III is the same as the company’s SpaceShipTwo, dubbed VSS Unity. But SpaceShip III is designed in a “modular fashion” that will enable a quicker turnaround time for re-flights, Colglazier said. It’s designed in such a way “that we can pull a panel off to get to an area that we might not’ve been able to get to in an easy fashion before” with SpaceShipTwo.
VSS Imagine’s first glide test — dropping mid-air from its carrier plane to glide back to land — is poised for this summer at the company’s Spaceport America facility in New Mexico.
The design tweaks that give SpaceShip III a quicker refurb edge over SpaceShipTwo marks Virgin Galactic’s shift in focus to production-intensive operations, as the company readies for a debut customer flight at the beginning of 2022. The vehicle weighs slightly less than SpaceShipTwo, and the interior cabin might look a bit different. “Generally what we learned in Unity through flight tests got embedded in this SpaceShip III class,” Colglazier said.
The company’s next powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo will come sometime in May. That test has been delayed for months after a December attempt was aborted mid-flight, just as the ship ignited its engines after being released mid-air from its mothership, VMS Eve. Company officials said last month in an earnings call that the abort was caused by electromagnetic interference that led to a reboot of a flight computer.