VSS Unity fires its rocket engine shortly after the start of its third space flight on May 22, 2021.
Virgin Galactic took a step closer to developing its space tourism system on Saturday and successfully completed its first space flight in more than two years.
The company’s starship, named VSS Unity, was lifted to an altitude of approximately 44,000 feet by a carrier aircraft called the VMS Eve. The plane then released the spaceship, which fired its rocket engine and accelerated it to more than three times the speed of sound.
After a slow setback of microgravity at the edge of space, reaching an altitude of 89.2 kilometers, Unity returned with a glide through the atmosphere. The spaceship landed on the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico, from which it had previously taken off.
“It was flawless,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told CNBC about the flight.
Pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay flew Unity. The couple previously flew into space, as did fellow Virgin Galactic pilots Michael “Sooch” Masucci and Mark Stucky, and head astronaut trainer Beth Moses, who each received astronaut wings after the company’s first two space flights.
The US officially regards pilots who have flown 50 miles as astronauts.
Virgin Galactic pilots head to the company’s SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft, which is attached to the Eve jet carrier aircraft.
Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceship is designed to accommodate up to six passengers along with the two pilots. The company has approximately 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, which sell for between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000.
The spaceflight is the company’s first since February 2019, the first in New Mexico, and the third to date. Virgin Galactic flew two space tests from its development facility in California’s Mojave Desert before moving to its operational base at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, was personally present at the spaceport to observe the flight. By his side saw former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who helped establish $ 218.5 million Spaceport America as the company’s base of operations, and the current Governor, Governor Lujan Grisham.
Board director Adam Bain, who along with Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya helped bring Virgin Galactic to the public, was also at Spaceport America to see the flight. Palihapitiya was absent, but praised the company’s “tireless commitment” in a statement to CNBC.
“We congratulate the entire Virgin Galactic team on reaching another important milestone,” said Palihapitiya.
The company has two remaining Federal Aviation Administration milestones that it must resolve in order to obtain a key license to conduct regular space flights. Colglazier said the data collected on the flight “looks solid” and will be sent to the FAA soon.
“We look forward to you reviewing the data,” said Colglazier.
Unity also carried three NASA-funded scientific research payloads on the mission as part of the agency’s Flight Opportunities program. Colglazier noted that the payloads generated revenue for the company, which is expected to disclose the full amount in its second quarter financial report.
Virgin Galactic’s shares rose 22% in the past two trading days after the company announced plans for the spaceflight test to avoid a potential maintenance issue that threatened to delay the flight.
The spaceflight is one of four remaining flights for Virgin Galactic to complete development of its SpaceShipTwo missile system. The second spaceflight test will carry four passengers to test the spacecraft’s cabin, while the third test is to fly founder Sir Richard Branson.
VSS Unity will be floating in microgravity on the edge of space during its third space flight on May 22, 2021.
The company’s flight test program has been significantly delayed in recent months. Saturday’s spaceflight was a rerun of a December attempt interrupted by an electromagnetic interference issue, and the company’s promised start of commercial service has been postponed from mid-2020 to early 2022.
According to Colglazier, Virgin Galactic “feels great about the solutions we have taken to address the electromagnetic interference problem” and a new digital flight controller that was recently added worked well – another “check box” for priorities of the company on that flight, he said.
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