MOJAVE — Just shy of a year after its second spaceflight, Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, “Unity,” has made the move from its birthplace at the Mojave Air and Space Port to its new home at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, with Unity slung between the twin fuselages, took off from Mojave shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday for the captive carry flight to Spaceport America.
The spaceflight company began transitioning personnel and equipment from Mojave to New Mexico last year in preparation for the start of commercial operations from Spaceport America, expected sometime this year.
WhiteKnightTwo made the move eastward in August, while Unity remained behind at The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm, for final installation of interior systems.
“When Virgin Galactic started moving to New Mexico last year, everyone felt the sheer magnitude of the task ahead, but we were encouraged and excited by the team’s confidence and strong vision for the future,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said. “Today we realized the next step in that dream by bringing our beautiful spaceship to New Mexico. We still have significant work ahead, but we are grateful to all our teammates who have made this day a reality.”
In addition to relocating the spacecraft, the three-hour captive carry flight provided an opportunity for additional high altitude and cold temperature flight testing of the vehicle over a longer period of time than the space flights. These conditions are difficult to replicate on the ground, Virgin Galactic officials said.
The flight was also training for pilot Nicola Pecile, flying in the SpaceShipTwo cockpit for the first time, where he joined Chief Pilot Dave Mackay. Pecile is the fifth Virgin Galactic pilot to complete a flight in Unity.
Piloting the WhiteKnightTwo were veteran Virgin Galactic pilots and astronauts Mike Masucci and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow.
Now in New Mexico, SpaceShipTwo will finish its flight testing program prior to beginning commercial flights. This will include a number of captive carry and unpowered glide flights from the new base, to allow the operations team to familiarize themselves with the airspace and ground control, Virgin Galactic officials said.
These will be followed by a number of rocket-powered test flights to continue evaluation of the vehicle’s performance. These flights will also allow for the final spaceship cabin and customer experience evaluations, officials said.
Virgin Galactic officials said Thursday that nearly all the approximately 100 employees who were to move from Mojave to New Mexico are in place there, along with more than 70 more hired locally.
The Spaceship Company remains in Mojave, where it will continue to manufacture additional spacecraft. The WhiteKnightTwo and Unity vehicles are expected to periodically return, as well, in support of testing of the new spaceships and for vehicle maintenance and upgrades.
The Spaceship Company employs more than 500 people at the Mojave Air and Space Port.