Virgin Galactic has been operating for a long time compared with other private spaceflight companies, but it had never actually flown in space before now. Well, the definition of space is somewhat hazy, but Virgin’s pilots are astronauts by at least one definition. This marks the highest altitude its spaceliner has reached, bringing the company one step closer to consumer space excursions.
The VSS Unity suborbital “SpaceShipTwo” spaceliner took to the skies with the help of its carrier plane, VMS Eve above the Mojave Desert on Dec. 13th. The mission started like many past test flights. However, this time the pilots aimed higher and fired the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor longer — a total of 60 seconds, according to a Virgin representative. That got the VSS Unity to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) at the top of its arc. It also reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.9 (about 2,225 mph).
The test flight started at 10 AM local time, and it was all over by 11:15 AM when VSS Unity landed on its Mojave airstrip. Virgin celebrated the vessel’s first encounter with space, but the company is using the loosest definition of “space.” The Air Force uses an altitude of 50 miles to mark the beginning of space. So, any of its pilots who exceed that get a set of astronaut wings. By that measure, pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Frederick C.J. Sturckow earned their wings.
SpaceShipTwo looking back on Spaceship Earth ???? pic.twitter.com/ynr31mKzzf
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
Virgin first unveiled the VSS Unity in 2016 and has flown it (with the rocket engine) four times now. Each test pushed the altitude a little higher: 16.0 miles, 21.7 miles, 32.3 miles, and now 51.4 miles. Unity replaced the VSS Enterprise, which broke apart in 2014 because its “feathering” airbrake system was accidentally deployed too early. That accident killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold. Virgin took steps to make sure the same thing can’t happen on new versions of its SpaceShipTwo design.
Safety is of higher importance than ever as Virgin Galactic nears its ultimate goal of taking passengers into space. For a mere $250,000, a person can ride up to the edge of space aboard one of Virgin’s spacecraft. The trip won’t be long, but they’ll get a few minutes of weightlessness before the craft heads back down for a landing. Virgin Galactic started pre-selling tickets several years ago and says it has sold all available seats through 2021.