After its first spaceflight in December, Virgin Galactic despatched the identical vessel previous the sting of the environment for a second time on Friday. This time, the rocket airplane went increased and sooner than earlier than — and it had three crew members on board as a substitute of two.
The flight marked one other step ahead in a new type of area race — one which goals to enable non-public residents (who can afford the ticket) a chance to exit our environment.
It was the corporate’s fifth supersonic-powered take a look at flight, and it reached an altitude of almost 56 miles earlier than returning safely to the Mojave Desert runway in California the place it took off. Beth Moses, an astronaut coach and microgravity analysis professional, was in the cabin as the corporate’s first take a look at passenger in area.
The SpaceShipTwo craft, a suborbital, rocket-fueled area airplane known as the VSS Unity, lifted off shortly after eight a.m. native time. It was carried aloft beneath a bigger service airplane for almost an hour after which launched. Next, its rocket ignited to propel the vessel, and its three crew members, up to the place the sky turned black.
Unity reached Mach three — 3 times the pace of sound — earlier than the rocket motor was switched off shortly earlier than 9 a.m. Then the vessel coasted to its highest altitude of 55.87 miles above sea degree. Two tail booms rotated into a “feathered” place to create drag, permitting the vessel to fall gently again into the environment and, finally, glide towards the runway.
George T. Whitesides, the chief government of Virgin Galactic, stated the analysis carried out on the flight centered not solely on the vessel’s trajectory, but in addition on the passenger expertise.
It went easily, he stated. “The pilots did a great job.”
The flight was a success for Richard Branson, the British billionaire who began Virgin Galactic in 2004. (Other billionaires funding non-public spaceflight tasks embody Elon Musk, who runs SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, who is behind Blue Origin.)
“Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves,” Mr. Branson said in a statement on Friday.
Ms. Moses’ job was to evaluate how passengers might experience a trip in the cabin. She observed the light, the temperature and the feeling of moving around in zero gravity. In an interview after the flight, she said it felt comfortable, and the view was beautiful.
“It was intense and magical and serene and almost unlike anything anyone can imagine,” she said. “The earth below was super clear and bright, with a beautiful blue Pacific Ocean and snow on the mountaintops.”
Ventures like these are more useful for testing the limits of tourism than for advancing scientific research, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said the Virgin flights could be used to conduct microgravity tests or equipment checks.
“But at this stage, from a scientist’s point of view, it’s equivalent to what we call a sounding rocket,” he said. “And we’ve been doing those since the 1940s.”
Sounding rockets are vessels that were sent by NASA to the upper reaches of the atmosphere to collect data and test instruments starting in 1945 — an important precursor to more advanced space travel.
NASA did participate in Friday’s flight via its Flight Opportunities program, which pays Virgin Galactic for space to conduct research inside the Unity during its trip.
And the three people on board — two pilots, David Mackay and Michael Masucci, and Ms. Moses — got the vantage point of a lifetime.
In an interview after the flight, Mr. Mackay commented on how quickly the sky turned black once the atmosphere faded, and Mr. Masucci said he was astonished by the sight of a very bright moon. They said the flight was amazing, but not frightening.
“If you’re fully prepared, you don’t feel scared,” Mr. Mackay said.
There is some room for debate as to whether Virgin Galactic has actually sent people into space. On both of its space trips — the vessel reached an altitude of 51.4 miles last time — the Unity flew higher than the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of where space begins, but lower than another widely accepted boundary between Earth and space, called the Kármán Line, which is about 62 miles above sea level.
In any case, Unity has flown high enough that the pilots saw a black sky above them and a blue-brown Earth below as they crested at the edge of the atmosphere. (Dr. McDowell is skeptical about the Kármán Line and thinks it is fair to say that Unity reached proper space on both of its recent trips.)
Unity was the first Virgin Galactic craft to reach space, but it was not the first private spacecraft to get there. Another ship, operated by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which later licensed its technology to Mr. Branson, soared to an altitude of 69.7 miles about 15 years ago.
At the time, people predicted that it was the dawn of a new age of commercial human spaceflight. But the enthusiasm faded as years passed. Some non-astronauts were flown to the International Space Station, but commercial flights did not come to fruition. Then came a tragic setback: the fatal crash of a previous SpaceShipTwo craft in 2014. One pilot was killed after he released the lock on the booms too early and the vessel fell apart, investigators found.
Virgin Galactic is expected to keep doing test flights and making improvements in terms of safety, altitude and weight capacity. It is still unclear when private citizens — including the more than 600 who have already bought tickets — will be allowed to take a ride.
“It’s definitely not a decade,” Mr. Whitesides said. “We are really getting pretty close.”