Ever dreamed of navigating the farthest reaches of space on a comparatively decent starship without being seen? While the concept doesn’t defy any preexisting laws of physics, the technology is still light years away from being feasible. But we finally have the next best thing. Introducing the VSS Imagine, the newest member of Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship III fleet. An unusual cross between a modern-day aircraft and something out of Star Trek, the VSS Imagine is an updated version of SpaceShipTwo and its flagship the VSS Unity. It was described to be more durable and far easier to mass-produce.
Spaceship III aims to send passengers on a suborbital trajectory across space and features reflective coating that effectively mirrors its surroundings just as the plane achieves terminal velocity. Think Romulan cloaking device, meant to conceal Klingon Birds-of-Prey from Federation vessels, but more mirror-like and transparent than invisible. The gorgeous new space plane was unveiled on Tuesday from Virgin Galactic.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is one of many aerospace companies hoping to make commercial spaceflight possible. Prior to the construction of Spaceship III, Virgin Galactic has been working tirelessly on building the perfect ship for the past 20 years. Its previous model, SpaceShipTwo, is still undergoing tests after one successful flight, but Spaceship III is already being touted as a far superior craft in every way. Not only is the reflective coating perfect for landscape photography, but it also enhances the frame, ensuring optimal thermal protection as the plane breaks through the Earth’s atmosphere. In a statement, Virgin Galactic says this of the VSS Imagine:
“Leveraging a modular design, the SpaceShip III class of vehicles are built to enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate. This third generation of spaceship will lay the foundation for the design and manufacture of future vehicles.”
The VSS Imagine is currently docked in Virgin Galactic’s fancy spaceport in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic promises more ambitious strides in space tourism in the coming years. For one, the company intends to fly 400 trips to the edge of space every year, per spaceport. To this end, it plans to commence manufacturing on the VSS Inspire, the second ship in Virgin Galactic’s burgeoning class of Spaceship III vehicles, as soon as ground tests on the VSS Imagine kick off this summer. Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, proudly states:
“Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet. VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight. Congratulations to our dedicated team who worked so brilliantly to achieve this milestone.”
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has invested both time and resources in the pursuit of space travel. Spaceport America, the company’s HQ in New Mexico, took over 200 million dollars worth of taxpayer money to build, with little to show for in previous years. Virgin Galactic’s track record, as glitzy as it may seem, is beset with setbacks and numerous “almosts.” In 2014, a test pilot was killed (and another seriously injured) during test flights for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. In 2019, part of the wing had come undone, nearly compromising the flight and the lives of all three crew members inside the spacecraft.
But the company remains optimistic and continues to manufacture and test planes in the hopes of furthering space tourism. Virgin Galactic hopes to launch its founder, Branson, to space via the VSS Imagine or VSS Inspire, after 20 years of hiccups and discouraging mishaps. Recent breakthroughs in spacecraft design might finally make this a reality. Branson himself writes:
“Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves. As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at, but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. All great achievements, creations and changes start with an idea. Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.”
A single seat on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft costs upwards of $200,000. If that’s a price tag you can afford, lucky you — after all, not everyone gets to soar freely through the stars with style and visit the edge of space, looking outward into the deepest recesses of our galaxy and wondering what comes beyond. Much like air travel, it’s a privilege granted only to the wealthiest — and those with the courage and imagination to dream.