Latest Virgin Galactic Test Puts Commercial Space Flights Within Reach

Latest Virgin Galactic Test Puts Commercial Space Flights Within Reach

It seems like Richard Branson might have gotten interested in space too early. Since the mid-2000s, Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been inching toward high-altitude spaceplane flights that will offer a few minutes of weightlessness. Fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have more recently gotten into commercial rockets that have the potential to take passengers into space. Regardless, Branson’s space tourism plan is almost at the goal. Following another successful test flight, the company is on track to fly its first passengers late this year.

According to Virgin Galactic, pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow successfully flew the first of three key test flights over the weekend, reaching an altitude of 55 miles (89 kilometers). Licensing is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will be watching to ensure the VSS Unity has shaken all the bugs that plagued the SpaceShipTwo designs in the past. In particular, the FAA will want to make sure the electronic interference issue that caused an aborted test flight in December 2020 has been fixed.

Virgin Galactic is a less ambitious take on space tourism. Since its founding in 2004, Branson’s private space firm has been working on rocket-powered planes that launch attached to carrier aircraft. VSS Unity began its Saturday test flight like all the others: attached to a WhtieKnightTwo aircraft called VMS Eve. This dual-fuselage craft lifted Unity to 13 kilometers before releasing it. The craft’s rocket motor allowed it to climb rapidly to the edge of space, reaching speeds as high as Mach 3. Following the powered ascent, VSS Unity glided down for a gentle landing.

Delighted to be on the flightline to watch @VirginGalactic’s first human spaceflight from the majestic Spaceport America @Spaceport_NM #UNITY21 pic.twitter.com/FcpCxJcjqS

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) May 22, 2021

If the subsequent tests go as planned, Virgin Galactic could start commercial flights late this year or early next. It already has more than 600 paying customers waiting for their chance to climb aboard the VSS Unity, many of which have been waiting for years to have their tickets punched. Most of those people paid $250,000, and anyone who signs up now will have to pay more than that.

Virgin hasn’t decided how much more. It probably won’t be able to push the envelope too much, though. Bezos’ Blue Origin will begin commercial flights this summer, and previous leaks have pointed to a price only marginally higher than Virgin Galactic. And then there’s SpaceX, which has extremely reliable reusable rocket technology that could allow it to offer competitive trips to low-Earth orbit if it chooses. Its first commercial flight with entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and three normals should launch later this year, but it has not made tickets for future rocket launches generally available at any price.

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