Virgin Galactic successfully flew its first spaceflight in more than two years on Saturday, taking a step closer to providing suborbital flights to paying space tourists in the long term.
VSS Unity was carried up to an altitude of about 44,000 feet by a carrier aircraft called VMS Eve, and released. The spacecraft then fired its rocket engine and accelerated to more than three times the speed of sound. After reaching an altitude of 89.2 kilometres, Unity, flown by pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, returned through the atmosphere in a glide and landed back at the runway of Spaceport America in New Mexico that it took off from earlier.
“It was flawless,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier later told CNBC news channel.
Unity can hold up to six passengers along with the two pilots. The company has sold about 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each.
The spaceflight was the company’s first since February 2019, its first in New Mexico, and its third to date. Virgin Galactic flew two spaceflight tests from its facility in California’s Mojave Desert, before moving to its operational base at Spaceport America.
60 seconds of rocket burn, straight into space. #UNITY21 #VirginGalactic pic.twitter.com/yc87hWRLxc
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 22, 2021
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson was in attendance at the spaceport to watch the flight. Alongside him was former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson – who helped establish the $218.5 million Spaceport America as the company’s base of operations – and current governor Governor Lujan Grisham.
Board director Adam Bain, who helped take Virgin Galactic public alongside chairman Chamath Palihapitiya, was also present.
The company has to reach two more US Federal Aviation Administration milestones before it can start conducting regular spaceflights.