Virgin Galactic launches high-stakes passenger flight to the edge of space

From Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane lifts off from New Mexico attached to its mother ship, dubbed VMS Eve.

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Virgin Galactic – the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson – has returned its supersonic aircraft to the edge of space for the first time since 2021, when Branson made his own journey into the cosmos.

The company’s spaceplane, VSS Unity, carried two pilots and a crew of four Virgin Galactic employees on Thursday’s test flight, which took off from a New Mexico runway around 11:15 a.m. ET, according to Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account.

The rocket-powered aircraft is designed to fly up to about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above the Earth’s surface while strapped under the wing of a massive twin-hulled mothership, dubbed “Eve” by the company. The spaceplane is designed to then detach from the mother ship, fire its rocket motor and fly straight up with its two pilots at the controls.

Virgin Galactic confirmed just before 12:30 a.m. ET that VSS Unity successfully completed its blast to space. The spaceplane then flew back to a landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Flights are designed to reach more than 50 miles above Earth, to heights recognized by the US government as the limit of space.

At the height of the flight, passengers are expected to have experienced a few minutes of weightlessness and be able to see through the plane’s windows at the curved horizon of the Earth and the darkness of space. From takeoff to landing, missions typically take less than two hours.

Company officials hope this will be the last test ride before Virgin Galactic can open rides to paying customers at the end of June — after years of promises, missed deadlines and Branson selling much of his original stake in the company. However, if the test flight ran into major problems on Thursday, the problems could cast doubt on Virgin Galactic’s future or lead to more lengthy delays.

The company has been here before. Virgin Galactic appeared poised to begin commercial operations after launching Branson along with three crew members to the edge of space in July 2021, a flight that came less than two weeks before Branson’s rival Jeff Bezos launched his own flight to the edge of space. performed. Branson denied racing with Bezos.

But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which authorizes commercial rocket launches, later opened an investigation into Branson’s flight when it was found that the spaceplane had drifted off course during the high-profile flight.

The six people on Thursday’s test mission include pilots CJ Sturckow and Mike Masucci, as well as Virgin Galactic employees Jamila Gilbert, a New Mexico native who works in the company’s internal communications; Chris Hume, a flight science engineer and the son of Jamaican immigrants; Luke Mays, an astronaut instructor and former NASA employee; and Beth Moses, the company’s chief of astronaut training, who has joined two previous flights.

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