On Saturday, Virgin Galactic made its first rocket flight from New Mexico to the fringes of space in a manned shuttle as the company aims to offer tourist flights to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.
High above the desert in a cloudless sky, VSS Unity launched its rocket to send a ship and two pilots into space. A NASASpaceFlight.com live feed showed the craft accelerating upward and later confirmed the landing using radar.
Virgin Galactic announced that its shuttle VSS Unity accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of just over 55 miles (89 kilometers) above sea level before making a gliding reentry through the atmosphere.
British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the flight and landing brings the 15-year-old company closer to commercial flights for tourists. Virgin Galactic says these flights could begin next year.
“Today was just an incredible step in the right direction,” Branson told The Associated Press shortly after the plane landed. “A lot of new systems that made teams were tested and they all worked.”
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglaser said there are at least two more undated test flights ahead – the next one with four specialist passengers in the cabin. The expected test also includes a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space.
“Today’s flight was elegant and beautiful,” Colglazier said. “We are going to analyze all the data that we collect during these flights. But watching from the ground and talking to our pilots was great. So now it’s time to do it again.”
Virgin Galactic said the flight was evaluating upgrades to the horizontal stabilizer, other flight controls and a suite of cabin cameras designed to provide live images of flight to people on the ground. The shuttle also carried a scientific payload in collaboration with NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program.
Preparations for the final flight included maintenance of a special carrier aircraft that lifts the spacecraft with six passengers to high altitude, where it is released so it can fire up its rocket engine and make the final push into space.
New Mexico launch delayed from 2020
The first rocket-powered test in New Mexico from Spaceport America has been repeatedly delayed until Saturday’s launch. In December 2020, a computer malfunction caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spacecraft’s rocket from launching normally. Instead of flying into space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.
While Virgin Galactic’s share price rose this week with the announcement of the latest test scheduled for Saturday, it was not enough to overcome the losses seen since the peak in February. Some analysts warn that it may be some time before the company sees a profit, as the exact start of commercial activity is still not determined.
Virgin Galactic is one of the few companies looking to capitalize on customers with an interest in space.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch the billionaire and the winners of his raffle in September. This is expected to be followed by a flight of three businessmen to the International Space Station in January 2022.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched the new capsule in January as part of a test run to launch its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts. The launch of the first manned flight is scheduled for July 20, the day Apollo 11 lands on the moon.
Virgin Galactic has already been to space twice. The first time was from California in December 2018.
Flights are designed to achieve an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) with the rocket engine turned off and crew preparation for re-entry and planning for landing.
On the way back, the fin system slows and stabilizes the ship as it re-enters the atmosphere.
New Mexico taxpayers poured over $200 million into the hangar and launch pad at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, after Branson and the then New York Governor invested in it. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, submitted a plan for the facility with Virgin Galactic as the main tenant.
Richardson watched Saturday’s flight from the ground and later thanked local counties who pledged in advance to raise sales taxes to support the venture.
“A great day has finally arrived after all of us, mostly me, endured a lot of heat for a period of time,” Richardson said. “But it happened. It’s successful.”