Virgin Galactic on Saturday made its first rocket flight from New Mexico to the fringe of space on a manned shuttle, as the company heads toward offering cruise tours to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
High above the desert in a clear sky, VSS Unity ignites its rocket to propel the ship and its pilots into space. A live broadcast from NASASpaceFlight.com showed the ship accelerating upwards and later confirmed its landing via radar.
Virgin Galactic has announced that its VSS Unity shuttle has accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of just over 55 miles (89 kilometers) above sea level before turning back through the atmosphere.
British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the flight and landing bring the 15-year-old project too close to commercial flights for tourists. Virgin Galactic says those flights could begin next year.
“Today was just a fantastic step in the right direction,” Branson told the Associated Press shortly after the plane landed. “I tested a lot of new systems the teams built and they all worked.”
Michael Colgladier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said at least two more undated flights await – the first with four mission-focused passengers in the cabin. Suspended Experiences also include a trip that will take Branson to the edge of space.
“The flight today was elegant and beautiful,” said Colglazer. “We’ll be analyzing all the data we collect on these flights. But watching from the ground and talking to the pilots, it was great. So now is the time for us to do it again.”
Virgin Galactic said the flight provided an assessment of upgrades to a gimbal stabilizer, other flight controls, and a suite of cabin cameras designed to provide live images of the flight to people on the ground. The shuttle also carried a scientific payload in cooperation with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
Preparations for the final flight included a maintenance review of the special carrier aircraft that ferries the six-passenger spacecraft to high altitude, where it is launched so it can fire up its rocket engine and make the final thrust into space.
Delayed launch from New Mexico as of 2020
Spaceport America’s first powered test of a rocket ship in New Mexico has been repeatedly delayed ahead of Saturday’s launch. In December 2020, a computer problem caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship’s rocket from being launched properly. Instead of flying into space, the ship and its pilots had to make an immediate landing.
While Virgin Galactic’s share price rose this week with the announcement of the date of the last test on Saturday, that was not enough to overcome the losses it has experienced since the peak in February. Some analysts warned that it may take some time before the company sees profits because the exact start of business operations is still up in the air.
Virgin Galactic is one of the few companies looking to make money from customers interested in space.
Elon Musk will launch SpaceX Billionaire and Lottery Winners in September. This is expected to be followed in January 2022 by a trip of three businessmen to the International Space Station.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of the test as it aims to launch its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts. It plans to take off its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Virgin Galactic has been in space twice before. The first time was from California in December 2018.
The flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) where the rocket engine is turned off and the crew prepares to re-enter the atmosphere and glide into the descent.
As part of the return trip, the feathering system slows and stabilizes the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.
New Mexico taxpayers have invested more than $200 million in the Spaceport America hangar and launch facility, near Truth or Consequences, after Branson and then Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has submitted a plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the principal tenant.
Richardson watched Saturday’s ride from the grounds below and then thanked the local county residents who committed early on to raise sales tax to support the project.
“It’s finally a great day after we’ve all been in a lot of heat – basically me – over a period of time,” Richardson said. “But it happened. It worked.”