Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity supersonic plane makes historic space flight

Dwayne Harmon
December 14, 2018

Two test pilots are scheduled to fly Virgin Space Ship Unity more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) into the sky Thursday morning from the company's spaceport in Mojave.

That's different than a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles (100 kilometres). "This is a test flight", said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, "with all of the novelty and excitement and risk that goes along with a real test flight".

Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft and ignited its rocket engine. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

Virgin's billionaire founder Sir Richard cried, high-fived and hugged spectators, as hundreds of the firm's employees and family members watched the launch.

On the December 13 test flight, SpaceShipTwo's hybrid rocket motor burned for 60 seconds, several seconds longer than the high end of estimates of the burn time company officials gave at a briefing the day before.

Virgin Galactic makes it clear that it's not time to get too excited yet. This was all made possible through Richard Branson's - Virgin Galactic, a company that is striving to make it possible for anyone to become an astronaut.

The rocket ship, called SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, climbed more than 82 kilometers during the flight above California's Mojave Desert. It was the first spacecraft with humans aboard to be launched from U.S. soil and reach space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked a milestone for the commercial space industry, which also includes companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Boeing.

In July, after burning the rocket motor for 42 seconds, the VSS Unity reached a height of 32 miles.

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The test demonstrates significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that were promised more than a decade ago.

The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb - and then begins a descent slowed and stabilized by unique "feathering" technology.

Just after 11 a.m. ET, SpaceShipTwo had its wheels down, back in the Mojave, safely ending a successful test flight.

Branson reflected on beating fellow billionaires and space entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to put humans into space, if not orbit.

He continued: "We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test programme which will see the rocket motor burn for longer, and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and with the comsos". This amount has also gone up from the initial $200,000 charged before 2013, and is likely to increase after the first 1,000 people have made the journey.

"Safety's all that matters if you're putting people into space", he said.

A University of Florida experiment studying plant growth response to microgravity environments was also among the four investigations selected by NASA's Flight Opportunities program.

But years passed, the program suffered delay after delay and in 2014, a fatal setback: The spacecraft came apart mid-flight, killing Michael Alsbury, the pilot.

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