Space tourism startup Virgin Galactic has unveiled Virgin Spaceship Imagine, the spaceplane that will eventually take its first paying space tourists into outer space by early 2022.
The gleaming spacecraft with its mirror-like, chrome-plated finish intended to add excitement to the journey is the first of two spacecraft in the SpaceShip III-class. The only other spacecraft in this class, VSS Inspire, is currently being built.
"Imagine will be the first of our SpaceShip III's to come join the fleet," according to Virgin Galactic chief executive Michael Colglazier. "It will be followed up by Inspire, which we're pivoting our manufacturing now."
He said the SpaceShip III-class is designed in a "modular fashion" to facilitate quicker turnaround times for re-flights. The class is designed in such a way "we can pull a panel off to get to an area that we might not have been able to get to in an easy fashion before" with the SpaceShipTwo-class, which are test vehicles being flown to ensure safe suborbital space travel.
The first ship in this class, VSS Enterprise, broke apart in midair during a test flight conducted over California Oct. 31, 2014. The catastrophe killed one of the plane's two test pilots and delayed the program for years.
The only other ship in this class, VSS Unity, was successfully flown into outer space at an altitude of 83 km by two test pilots Dec. 13, 2018. In February 2019, VSS Unity with three passengers reached an altitude of 89.9 km.
The first glide test for VSS Imagine is scheduled for this summer at the company's Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic eventually sees launching its maiden customer flight at the beginning of 2022.
"Generally what we learned in Unity through flight tests got embedded in this SpaceShip III class," said Colglazier.
Virgin Galactic ticket holders have paid anywhere from $200,000 to $250,000 each to reserve seats on the upcoming VSS Imagine spaceflights. It says it has about 600 customers and will reopen ticket sales soon. New tickets, however, are expected to be priced beyond $250,000 per passenger.