Space Sunday: Unity 22 flies

A view from the tail boom camera on VSS Unity, during Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 flight, July 11th, 2021. Credit: virgin Galactic

How would you really like to celebrate your birthday? We all have our own dreams of the perfect celebration – and for Sir Richard Branson, it meant becoming an astronaut just 7 days short of his 71st birthday.

Branson was one of six people who took to the skies over New Mexico in the first “full” passenger carrying flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, in what amounts to one of the last test flights before the company starts flying fair-paying passengers on sub-orbital trips to the very edge of space.

Sir Richard Branson (2nd from right) and fellow “passengers” (all of whom had roles to play during the flight) Colin Bennett, Beth Moses (making her 2nd flight aboard VSS Unity) and Sirisha Bandla ahead of the Unity 22 flight, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic 

The flight – called Unity 22 to mark the 22 flight of the spacecraft christened by the late Stephen Hawking – took Branson, together with Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett and the company’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla, both of whom were also making their first flights on the vehicle, together with Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses making her return to space on the vehicle, to a peak altitude in excess of 86 kilometres. At the controls were veteran Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.

The entire flight was live streamed by Virgin Galactic in a special show hosted (rather cheesily, it must be said) by Stephen Colbert, although the stream was also carried by a number of You Tube channels such as, from whom some of the images used here were captured.

MSS Eve carries VSS Unity into the skies over New Mexico, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Weather had initially interfered with things, forcing the take-off of the mated MSS Eve and VSS Unity to be delayed, but at 14:35 UTC, MSS Eve – named after Branson’s late mother, and to whom he credits his outlook on life and his drive to follow his dreams – took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Unity mounted on her main wing spar, to climb into a perfect sky above the Virgin Galactic base of operations.

The climb to the planned release altitude of 15 km took some 50 minutes, the two craft closely observed by chase planes. At ten minutes prior to release, both craft entered a final check-out phase of the flight, with Eve maintaining altitude as both her flight crew and Mackay and Masucci worked with ground-side Mission control to confirm all was in readiness for Unity’s flight. At this point, Unity also switched its internal power, allowing her flight control and avionics to be confirmed as ready for release.

The crew in Unity’s main cabin, with Branson forward left, and Moses, forward right, shortly before the release, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

With everything checked and ready, and Eve still holding steady, the pyrotechnics that would blow the retaining bolts holding Unity to Eve were armed. Thirty seconds later they fired, separate the two vehicle, and Unity entered a very shallow dive while Eve started a climbing turn to move away from the wake of Unity’s motor.

That motor fired 2 seconds after release, and within 3 seconds had doubled Unity’s forward airspeed to carry it through Mach 1. With the motor firing smoothly, the pilots placed the vehicle into its “Gamma Turn”, essentially pointing the nose straight up  as it continued to accelerate.

VSS Unity is released from MSS Eve, observed by a chase plane. Credit: Virgin Galactic

At 31 seconds after release, Unity passed through Mach 2, climbing rapidly to reach Mach 3 at 55 seconds from release. Just over 10 seconds later, the motor shut down, but Unity continued to climb, and the flight crew initiated the “feather”, raising the vehicle’s tail booms relative to the hull by 60º.

“Feathering” allowed the craft to effectively “back flip” whilst still climbing, so the windows along the top of the cabin to face towards the Earth whilst the cabin itself entered a period of micro-gravity as Unity headed towards an apogee of approximately 86.77 km, where the flight crew used the reaction control system (RCS), small gas-powered jets, to re-orient the vehicle ready to start a belly-first drop back into the denser atmosphere.

An artist’s impression of VSS Unity with its tail boom “feathered” and the vehicle oriented for the drop back into the denser atmosphere. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This apogee point – 86-ish kilometres – has become a bone of contention between Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos / Blue Origin in the week or so since the Unity 22 flight was announced, as it is around 20 km below the Kármán line. The latter is recognised by many as being the divide between atmospheric flight from space flight, thus marking those who cross it as astronauts. As  it is a line Virgin Galactic does not cross (but Blue Origin’s New Shepherd does), Bezos has denigrated Branson’s flight in comparison to his own, which is due to take place on July 20th.

However, whilst not reaching the 100 km mark, the Virgin Galactic flights do exceed 80 km altitude – which is regarded as the boundary between air and space by the US Air Force, NASA and the US Federal Aviation Authority – and so those flying with Virgin Galactic do qualify as astronauts. More to the point, an extra 20km of altitude doesn’t give passengers a more expanse view of Earth compared to 86 km, and the overall amount of time spent in micro gravity conditions aboard either vehicle is roughly the same.

Sir Richard Branson floats in the inverted cabin of VSS Unity, looking down at Earth. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Unity 22 flies”

African wars, feline protection, music and wizards

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home in Nowhereville, unless otherwise indicated. Note that the schedule below may be subject to change during the week, please refer to the Seanchai Library website for the latest information through the week.

Sunday, July 11th,  13:00: Tea-Time At the Movies: The African Queen

As World War I reaches the heart of the African jungle, Charlie Allnutt, a dishevelled trader and Rose Sayer, an English spinster missionary, find themselves thrown together by circumstance. With the Germans closing in on them, they must fight time, heat, malaria, and bullets to make their escape on the rickety steamboat The African Queen, pausing only to hatch their own outrageous military plan.

Originally published in 1935, The African Queen is a tale replete with vintage Forester drama – unrelenting suspense, reckless heroism, impromptu military manoeuvres, near-death experiences and a good old-fashioned love story.

Most famously, perhaps it became a 1951 film directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel and John Woolf. It starred Humphrey Bogart as the hard-nosed, crusty Allnut, and Katharine Hepburn as the prim and proper Methodist missionary. Unable to provide an English (or more specifically, a Cockney) accent, Bogart’s Charlie Allnut was re-cast as a Canadian.

The film opened to somewhat polarised reviews by critics who either found it “contrived” and “implausible” or who saw it as two powerful performances by two exceptionally well-matched Hollywood talents which, together with Huston’s panache behind the camera, elevated the film to worthy Oscar status, something reflected in the fact that Bogart’s performance as Allnutt gained him his only Oscar.

A year after the film’s release, the script – written by Houston working with James Agee, Peter Viertel, and John Collier, was turned into a radio presentation by Lux Hollywood and with Academy Award winner Greer Garson taking over the role of Rose Sayer.

So why not join Corwyn Allen, Gloriana Maertens, Kayden Oconnell & Elrik Merlin  in the first of a series of special garden presentations, celebrating great movies of the 20th Century?

Monday, July 12th 19:00: The Weigher

A world ruled by sentiment big cats where the rule of law is enforced by the Weighers, a combination of judge, peacemaker and accountant through a brutal code of honour and combat. Without their violent intervention in things, all-out war and anarchy would ensue.

When two human explorers – fragile, weak and potentially easy prey – arrive on that world, Slasher, a Weigher of skill and talent in physical combat, finds herself defending them. In doing so, she finds herself a disgraced outcast.

Join Gyro Muggins as he read the story by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin.

Tuesday, July 13th

12:00 Noon: Russell Eponym, Live in the Glen

Music, poetry, and stories.

19:00: TBA

Check the Seanchai Library website for updates.

Wednesday, July 14th, 19:00 Hogwarts An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide

a collection of J.K. Rowling’s writing from the Pottermore archives: short reads originally featured on These eBooks, with writing curated by Pottermore, will take you beyond the Harry Potter stories as J.K. Rowling reveals her inspiration, intricate details of characters’ lives and surprises from the wizarding world.

Hogwarts An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide takes you on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You’ll venture into the Hogwarts grounds, become better acquainted with its more permanent residents, learn more about lessons and discover secrets of the castle . . . all at the turn of a page.

With Caledonia Skytower.

Thursday, July 15th

19:00: The Dragon of Og

With Shandon Loring.

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary sci-fi and fantasy read by Finn Zeddmore.

Friday, July  16th, 14:30: Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals

Football in Ankh-Morpork is not as we might know it. Rather than being comprised of rules and played within a recognisable ground, it is far more akin to the somewhat violent mob football of medieval Europe.

Not that this is a concern for the elderly, mostly indolent and (some might be tempted to think) somewhat inept old wizards making up the faculty staff at the city’s school of wizardry, the Unseen University. Until, that is, their very handsome annual endowment becomes subject to their playing the game themselves.

Thus, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully sets out a two-pronged strategy: to ensure the city’s version of football is restructured with proper (and favourable?) rules, and to put team preparations at the university in the hands of the talented candle dribbler, Mr. Nutt and his assistant, Trevor Likely, the son of the city’s most famous (if deceased – did I mention the game can be violent?) player, who are in turn supported by Glenda Sugarbean, who runs the university’s night kitchen and her assistant Juliet Stollop.

Except Mr. Nutt soon discovers he has problems of his own to deal with, and Trevor has promised his Mum he’ll never get involved in the game.  Meanwhile, Glenda has the daily responsibility of baking the Discworld’s best pies, and Juliet is about to find herself whisked towards the heights of fame as a fashion model, thus potentially leaving the team a little short on practical advice…

Join Caledonia Skytower as she presents the 37th novel in the Discworld series, and possibly one of its greatest satirical undertakings encompassing football, academia, traditions, the fashion industry, politics, love, fandom, and which mixes in more serious themes of identity, crab mentality and self-worth.