WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic showed off the interior of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane July 28 as the company prepares to wrap up the campaign of test flights of the vehicle and begin commercial operations.
In an event held online because of the ongoing pandemic, the company highlighted the various aspects of the design of the cabin interior, from seats to cameras, intended to maximize the experience of customers who are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to briefly look down on the Earth and float in microgravity.
“In many ways, the cabin is the design centerpiece of this transformational journey. It’s this cabin which will enable hundreds, and then thousands, of people to embark on one of the most unforgettable journeys of their lives,” Michael Colglazier, the former Disney executive who joined Virgin Galactic as chief executive earlier this month, said during the brief webcast.
The cabin, created by Virgin Galactic and London-based design firm seymourpowell, features six seats in a range of sizes intended to accommodate the company’s diverse customer base. The seats recline once the powered portion of the vehicle’s flight is over, maximizing the volume in the cabin for people to float around and also putting them in the proper orientation for reentry so that forces of deceleration go through the chest. Under Armour, the athletic clothing company that designed the suits customers will wear, also collaborated on the seat design.
The cabin includes a variety of features Virgin Galactic believes will enhance the spaceflight experience for its customers. The cabin windows are surrounded by handholds the company calls “halos” to make it easier for customers to position themselves. There are 16 high-definition cameras, including some embedded in the halos so that customers can take selfies with the Earth in the background. The back of the cabin has a large tinted mirror so that customers can see themselves as if “illuminated by the natural brightness of the Earth,” according to a company fact sheet.
The installation of the cabin into the company’s current SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, is “largely” complete, said George Whitesides, the longtime chief executive of the company who moved into the newly established post of chief space officer when the company hired Colglazier. “We still have a few pieces that we’re putting in, but what you see is what our customers will get.”
In an interview, Whitesides said the company worked to balance aesthetics with safety, with the latter involving features such as a five-point seat harness. “Interior design is hard when it comes to spaceships, because you have to integrate safety above all with comfort and, in our case, a huge emphasis on the experience,” he said.
That effort dates back to the early days of Virgin Galactic, when the company surveyed its initial group of “Founder” customers, which included Whitesides. The company unveiled one mockup of the cabin in 2006 at an event in New York. The new cabin design is significantly different, but does retain some elements of that design, such as the rotating seats.
Other elements of the design come from more recent testing. Whitesides said the development of the halos around the windows was based in part from feedback from a test flight of SpaceShipTwo last February where Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut trainer, flew in the cabin to test various aspects of the flight experience.
“It’s been a long trek to get to this point, but I’m really excited to unveil this,” he said.
Planning for commercial flights
The unveiling of the cabin is one of the last major milestones in the development of SpaceShipTwo. The company moved the vehicle from Mojave, California, where it was built and performed its initial test flights, to Spaceport America in New Mexico in February. The vehicle has performed two glide flights since then, most recently June 25.
Whitesides said the company is preparing for the first powered test flight of the vehicle from the spaceport, but did not give a date. “Hopefully that’s a great rocket-powered flight, potentially to space,” he said, providing the remaining verification and validation data needed for its Federal Aviation Administration license.
If that flight is a success, the company then will perform several additional test flights with as many as four people in the cabin. “In essence, what we need to do it make sure the experience we plotted out and all the training we done fits together so that people have a great experience in space,” he said.
After a “very few” such flights, he predicted, the company will start commercial flights. “We’re going to take our time to spool up,” he said. “We’re not going to go straight into flying every other day.”
Virgin Galactic also has yet to resume sales of tickets, which it put on hold after a 2014 test flight accident. Earlier this year it unveiled its “One Small Step” program, where prospective customers could pay a $1,000 deposit to have a first shot of buying tickets when they go on sale. More than 400 people have signed up so far, the company disclosed in May when it announced its first quarter financial results.
Whitesides didn’t state when tickets would go on sale. “We’re thinking a lot about that,” he said, noting the company will update the One Small Step program when it releases its second quarter financial results Aug. 3.
Whitesides said that Colglazier, the new chief executive, is focusing on those sales plans as he takes over. “He is an experience master,” Whitesides said of Colglazier, who led Disney’s worldwide theme park business before coming to Virgin Galactic. “I think we have a terrific experience, but I think he will be able to take it to the next level.”