How Virgin Galactic's New Spaceship Honors Stephen Hawking

Virgin Spaceship Unity will begin flight tests in August 2016, with first solo flights planned for early 2017. . (Photo: Jack Brockway/Virgin Galactic)

If Stephen Hawking's dream to one day experience spaceflight doesn't come to pass, the famed theoretical physicist can at least rest assured that an iconic piece of him will one day be gazing back down on Earth.

During an unveiling ceremony in February for Virgin Galactic's new Spaceship Unity, billionaire founder Richard Branson announced that Hawking had not only come up with the name of the craft, but also made up a significant part of its exterior branding.

"We felt strongly that we should somehow make sure that Stephen remained a permanent part of Unity's story, because so much of what he stands for resonates with what we at Virgin Galactic aspire to be," Branson said. "So the Galactic Girl on the side of our proud Spaceship Unity now carries a banner using an image of Stephen's eye."

Virgin Spaceship Unity
Virgin Spaceship Unity includes a picture of Stephen Hawking's eye in the spacecraft's logo. (Photo: Land Rover/Flickr)

In a video announcing Unity, Hawking recalled his reaction to Branson's offering of a future free ticket aboard Virgin Galactic.

"I said 'yes' immediately," Hawking said of the $300,000 gift. "Since that day, I have never changed my mind. If I am able to go — and if Richard will still take me — I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship."

Jonathan Firth, vice president at Virgin Galactic, told Bloomberg that Virgin Spaceship Unity will begin its first flight tests next month. The spacecraft will initially be tethered to a mothership called White Knight Two, with plans for independent, fully-powered flights in 2017. As for when we might see a maiden voyage to space with actual human aboard, Firth said the company is no longer giving itself deadlines.

“We’ve thrown out so many dates in the past that we weren’t able to keep to, we’re being a bit more conservative this time," he told Bloomberg's Benjamin Katz.

Despite the company's new position, the Guardian earlier this spring did manage to prod Branson into giving a new prediction. When asked if he would be disappointed if he hadn't reached space within the next two years, the 63-year-old replied, "I would be astounded."