© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity passenger rocket plane is towed to the hangar after billionaire businessman Richard Branson and his crew reach the edge of space, at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico , United States, July 11, 2021.
By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Virgin Galactic spacecraft blasted toward the edge of space on Thursday carrying a crew of six, its first test flight in nearly two years as the space tourism company headquarters founded by Richard Branson prepares the long-awaited commercial service.
Virgin Galactic said on Twitter the company’s twin-fuselage VMS Eve cargo plane took off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America site at around 11:17 a.m. EDT. The ship carried the VSS Unity spacecraft along with the company’s six-person crew to an expected altitude of about 50,000.
There, VSS Unity detached from its carrier and activated an engine to propel itself into space, the company confirmed on Twitter. The spacecraft is expected to reach an altitude of about 50 miles, where the crew will experience weightlessness for about 3 minutes.
Virgin Galactic’s Unity 25 mission comes 22 months after billionaire Branson and his employees traveled to the edge of space aboard the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. It was hoped that the high-profile mission would open the door for regular flights shortly thereafter.
A Branson flight safety probe conducted by the US Federal Aviation Administration delayed the plans, as did Virgin Galactic’s longer-than-predicted spacecraft upgrade.
If all goes well, Virgin Galactic hopes to launch its first commercial mission by the end of June, a long-delayed research flight chartered to the Italian Air Force. After that, the company is expected to perform one task approximately every month.
Virgin Galactic pilots Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile flew the VMS Eve transport plane. The spacecraft, untethered from the carrier, fired up a rocket engine and climbed to an altitude of about 50 miles in microgravity, the US-recognized boundary of Earth’s atmosphere.
The test mission, which lasts about 90 minutes from takeoff to landing on the spacecraft after spending three minutes in zero gravity, follows the kind of journey Virgin Galactic intends to provide for about 800 backlog customers. Most paid between $250,000 and $450,000 for a ticket.
In April, the company conducted a successful glide test with VSS Unity, dropping it at 47,000 feet to free-fall back to the runway without triggering the engine to fly into space.
Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow at the controls of the spaceship. In the cabin are the company’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, astronaut instructor Luke Mays, senior technical director Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert, senior manager of internal communications.