NASA and Virgin Galactic Are Developing Supersonic Air Travel

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic is teaming up with NASA as part of a project to develop "high-speed technologies" for supersonic air travel.

The collaboration, formalized by the signing of a Space Act Agreement this week, will aim to make "technically feasible, high Mach vehicles for civil applications."

Exact details and timescales remain murky, but Virgin Galactic said on Tuesday it is seeking to develop a "vehicle for the next generation of safe and efficient high-speed air travel, with a focus on customer experience and environmental responsibility."

Virgin Galactic said on Twitter that it will start focusing on "vehicle thermal management and propulsion system options in the Mach 3-5 regime."

"We are the only commercial organization in the world that is flying a crewed vehicle at the edge of hypersonic flight," its official social media account noted.

An initial focus will be vehicle thermal management and propulsion system options in the Mach 3 -5 regime.

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 5, 2020

Last week, the company announced the first test flight of its SpaceShipTwo craft "VSS Unity" had completed "key elements of a spaceflight profile," such as take-off, landing and a high-altitude release, bringing it one step closer to commercial reality.

NASA is also no stranger to the development of super-fast aircraft. Its X-59 QueSST is being designed with "quiet supersonic technology" and "faster-than-sound" air travel. Assembly work on that craft remains steady, the agency said, noting at the end of last month that its main wing was nearing completion at a Lockheed Martin facility.

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic Holdings, described the company's work with NASA as being the "beginning of an important partnership.

"Virgin Galactic's... platform will, in partnership with the historic capabilities of NASA and other government agencies, enable the progression of new technical steps that will improve US competitiveness," he stated. "We see this as an area with tremendous growth potential that we will continue to invest in, alongside... spaceflight."

The announcements came alongside the posting of Virgin Galactic's first quarter 2020 financial results, which confirmed the business had a net loss of $60 million, narrowing from roughly $73 million net loss in the fourth quarter of last year.

Virgin Galactic, when fully operational, aims to offer flights that include views of Earth from space and several minutes of weightlessness, launching from New Mexico.

It uses a four-engine aircraft carrier known as WhiteKnightTwo to launch passengers onboard its SpaceShipTwo from an altitude of about 50,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo is being made to carry up to 8 people into space "safely and with high frequency."

SpaceShipTwo was named VSS Unity by Professor Stephen Hawking in 2016.

James Kenyon, director of the NASA Aeronautics Advanced Air Vehicles Program, said: "This Space Act Agreement will enable NASA to collaborate with Virgin Galactic and [its subsidiary] The Spaceship Company to allow our organizations to take advantage of new tools, techniques, and technologies developed over the last 50 years and to explore potential new solutions for the commercial aviation industry."

SpaceShipTwo Unity flying free in New Mexico Airspace for the first time Virgin Galactic 2020