Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully sends four people to space
Billionaire Richard Branson is back in the space race.
Branson-owned Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight Thursday before paying customers take short trips to space.
The company’s VMS Eve twin-hull aircraft carrier took off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America site around 11:15 a.m. ET with a crew of four company employees.
The VSS Unity spaceplane hovered 54.2 miles above the Earth’s surface for three minutes, allowing the space tourists to experience weightlessness for the first time.
Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s maiden flight in 2021 sparked an investigation after it drifted off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert.
The VSS Unity spaceplane hovered 54.2 miles above the Earth’s surface for three minutes, allowing the space tourists to experience weightlessness for the first time
The crew of four, all Virgin Galactic employees, spent three minutes in weightlessness
Unlike other companies that use vertical launch rockets, Virgin Galactic uses an aircraft carrier with two pilots that take off from a runway, reach great heights, and drop a rocket-powered aircraft that flies into space before gliding back to Earth.
The carrier launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico, with the spaceplane tucked under its belly then released at an altitude of 14,500 feet and blasted into space.
VSS Unity then started its engine and climbed about 262,000 feet – the altitude recognized as the edge of space.
“Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!” Virgin Galactic tweeted that on Thursday.
The total travel time is 90 minutes, with passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in the spaceplane’s cabin before returning to Earth at 12:37 a.m. ET.
The company’s Unity 25 mission is a critical final test flight before it flies its first commercial mission at the end of June, hoping to fly a mission roughly every month thereafter.
The flight comes 22 months after billionaire Branson and his employees drove to the edge of space aboard the spaceship SpaceShipTwo.
Virgin Galactic had hoped a high-profile mission would open the door to routine flights soon after, but experienced a landing mishap that left the company grounded until Thursday.
The four people who went into space on Thursday work for Virgin Galactic
The carrier launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico, carrying the spaceplane under its belly which was then released at an altitude of 14,500 feet and blasted into space
In September 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it was investigating an anomaly in the flight’s descent.
The FAA, which oversees commercial air and spaceflight in the US, found that the spaceplane “deviated from air traffic control clearance” and did so for about a minute and 41 seconds.
At that point, everything seemed to be going as planned: The mothership took off as expected and the spaceplane was released at 50,000 feet to continue its 40-mile journey into space before slipping back safely to land on a runway at Spaceport America.
However, one report suggests that there were warning lights in the cockpit indicating that the spacecraft was drifting off course and could struggle without action on its return.
Virgin Galactic said “the final trajectory of the flight deviated from our initial plan,” but added that “did not fly outside the lateral limits of protected airspace.”
The company says it is working with the FAA on its investigation into the deviation in the return route to land on the runway and improve communications.
The crew had a great view of the Earth while in the spaceplane
Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s maiden flight in 2021 sparked an investigation after it drifted off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert
In a statement about the FAA investigation, Virgin Galactic acknowledged that “the flight dropped below airspace altitude,” but confirmed that this was “for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace entered. ‘
Virgin Galactic said: “When the vehicle encountered high-altitude winds that changed its trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored its trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.”
It added that “at no time did the ship sail over population centers or create a danger to the public.”
The company said it is “working with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights,” including warning of any issues.
The agency banned Virgin Galactic from taking off until it could fix the problems and finally get federal approval for Thursday’s spaceflight.
Next, customers who bought tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness come aboard a winged spacecraft launched from the belly of an aircraft.
About 800 tickets have been sold in the past decade, with the first batch costing $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.