Virgin Galactic completed what was expected to be its last test flight on Thursday before paying customers on a short trip to space, which the space tourism company described as an “amazing achievement” given the long road to commercial operations.
Six company employees, including two pilots, landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after a short weightless up-and-down flight of a few minutes. It took about an hour for the mother ship to carry the spacecraft to an altitude of 44,500 feet (13,563 m), where it was released and its rocket motor fired for a final push.
“Successful promotion, we’ve reached the spot!” Virgin Galactic tweeted.
It reached an altitude of 54.2 miles (87 km) before returning to the runway, according to the company.
Jamila Gilbert, who grew up in southern New Mexico and heads the company’s internal communications, was among those on the board assessing what it would be like for paying customers.
It was difficult to put his experience into words, saying that it would take a lifetime to process the scenes and emotions that filled those moments between rocket ignition and the spacecraft reaching its highest point.
“It was just this magnetic bridge,” she said in an interview. “When I started looking out, I could feel myself floating. I could hear voices. But I couldn’t stop looking at the planet, and I couldn’t look away.”
Fellow crew member Christopher Hui said everything seemed to stop when the spaceship left the carrier plane.
“You’re just waiting for the rocket to light up,” said Hui, an aerospace engineer. “And I think there was a lot of anticipation of that moment, and I could have lived in that moment forever.”
Then there was a slight jolt with the rocket firing, and the crew were pinned to their seats as the G-forces kicked in.
The flight comes nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin to space. Bezos ended the flight nine days later from West Texas, and Blue Origin has already started several passenger trips. Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s flight to investigate the crash.
Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops and finally won federal government approval in 2021.
The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyze data from Thursday’s flight and inspect the planes and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial service, possibly in late June.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has acknowledged delays and missed deadlines over the years. But on Thursday, he said seeing the crew’s reaction after landing gave him confidence in what the company has built so far.
The initial commercial flight will involve members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct the experiments. Next will come customers who bought tickets years ago for the chance to be weightless on a winged spaceship that launches from the belly of an airplane.
About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.
Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will aim for 400 flights a year from Spaceport America after building its next class of rocket-powered planes at a facility in neighboring Arizona.
After Branson’s trip, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the flights as it investigated a problem that caused the rocket ship to veer off course while landing on its runway in the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic insists Branson and the others were never in danger.
The company changed its career to airplanes and spaceplanes. The delay was twice as long as expected, partly due to supply chain problems and labor shortages.
Branson joined a group of customers watching Thursday’s flight from Spaceport America.
Hui, senior manager of Virgin Galactic’s flight science engineering team, said the company is ready for commercial service and will be expanding its fleet in the coming years.
“We’re looking to scale up massively,” he said, “and the goal is to populate multiple spaceports with multiple spaceships and motherships and send hundreds of people into space each year.”
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