Four years after tragedy, Virgin Galactic flies to edge of space

14 Dec 2018

Photo taken aboard VSS Unity as it reached the edge of space. Image: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic rocket aircraft VSS Unity successfully completed a journey to the edge of space, four years after a previous prototype broke apart.

The space race is certainly back on, but this time it’s not about national space agencies – rather, space tourism. One of those companies aiming to eventually take the general public to the boundary between Earth and space is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic service, which he founded a decade ago.

Now, in a major milestone, the company’s VSS Unity aircraft – the second vehicle in the SpaceShipTwo series – has successfully completed a test flight, reaching a height of 82.7km above the Earth’s surface before landing safely at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Carrying the spacecraft to its lofty goal was the White Knight Two carrier plane dubbed VMS Eve, which dropped VSS Unity at a height of 15km. At this point, pilots Mark Stucky and Frederick CJ Sturckow – with a mannequin passenger called Annie and four NASA space instruments on board – fired VSS Unity’s rocket engine to take it the rest of the way up.

During this time, Virgin Galactic said the craft’s engine burned for approximately one minute, during which time it reached speeds of almost three times the speed of sound.

With the confirmation of a successful flight, it became the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, in addition to being the first ever spaceflight of a commercial passenger service craft.

‘It was an indescribable feeling’

Speaking afterwards, Branson said: “Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.

“Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”

This was the fourth test of the rocket-powered craft since its unveiling in 2016, with the previous tests having taken it gradually higher – the maximum altitude prior to this latest flight was 52km.

The successful mission comes four years after Virgin Galactic’s future looked seriously in doubt when the first SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

So far, Virgin Galactic has said that around 600 people have already booked reservations for the first flights, with the price per head being somewhere in the region of between $200,000 and $250,000.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic