Space tourism really is the hot topic among billionaires nowadays, and some of them are getting closer to making it a reality. On Saturday, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic made room for itself in the race, successfully launching its spaceplane to space after more than two years. The flight is a step forward for the company on its journey to develop its space tourism system.
Virgin Galactic announced on Saturday that the VSS Unity, its reusable spaceplane designed to carry eight people into space, had completed its third crewed flight. The company said that VSS Unity had reached a speed three times the speed of sound after being released by its mothership, the VMS Eve, a custom-built aircraft that carries the VSS Unity to an altitude of around 50,000 feet before releasing it, at which point the spaceplane’s rocket engine fires up and takes it to space.
VSS Unity, flown by pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, reached space at an altitude of 55.45 miles (89.23 kilometers), according to a news statement. It then returned to Earth and eventually the runway at its Spaceport America launch facility in New Mexico. This was Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight from Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said that Saturday’s flight showed off the elegance and safety of the company’s spaceflight system, known as SpaceShipTwo, and marked a major step forward in its aspirations.
“Space travel is a bold and adventurous endeavor, and I am incredibly proud of our talented team for making the dream of private space travel a reality,” Colglazier said in a statement. “We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”
In addition, the VSS Unity carried research experiments for NASA on its Saturday flight. One consisted of an electromagnetic field measurement experiment from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Another experiment, called the Collisions Into Dust Experiment, is from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and seeks to study the behavior of dust and fine particles in response to human and robotic activities in space, NASA explained. The third experiment on board was a space-based surgical system from the University of Louisville and Carnegie Mellon University.
Saturday’s successful flight was a redemption for Virgin Galactic, which suffered disappointment last year after it was forced to abort its inaugural flight from Spaceport America due to an electromagnetic interference issue. It also allowed the company to check one milestone off its list for this year. Virgin Galactic plans to carry out four test flights in 2021. The company’s previous two flights took place in late 2018 and early 2019.
The Verge reports that Virgin Galactic’s next flight will include four company employees in addition to the two pilots. The company’s third flight, meanwhile, is planning on taking Branson to space, and the fourth flight is scheduled to be a commercial flight for the Italian Air Force. This last flight is expected to bring in $2 million in revenue, according to the outlet.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company looking to open space tourism to paying customers in the next few years. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is carrying out its first crewed flight with its New Shephard suborbital vehicle on July 20 and is auctioning off one seat to anyone interested. Besides the auction winner, not many details were provided about the inaugural crew.
Virgin Galactic’s start date for commercial service is early 2022. It has about 600 ticket reservations for future flights, which have been sold at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each.