Richard Branson’s dream of putting tourists into space is “back on track”.
After a four year hiatus following an earlier test flight in 2014, in which one pilot died following a catastrophic mistake, Virgin Galactic successfully launched the VSS Unity into near orbit and had it return safely to earth afterward.
The company said in a statement: “The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing. It also marks a key moment for the test flight program, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns.”
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Following more tests and further design tweaks, Sir Branson hopes to start flying paying space tourists into the micro-gravity environment above the planet, using the same craft again and again.
According to Virgin Galactic, the experimental Unity spacecraft took off at 8:02am on 5 April 2018 with Mark ‘Forger’” Stucky and Dave Mackay piloting the craft, attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile.
Space, the Final Frontier…
The joined vehicles climbed to 46,500ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains where Unity was then released and under its own rocket power accelerated to Mach 1.87 in 30 seconds, and reached 84,271ft before finally returning to Earth.
The morning flight was the first powered test of the VSS Unity spaceship, built and re-designed after the crash of Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured lead pilot Peter Siebold after an in-flight breakup 10 miles above California’s Mojave Desert on Oct. 31, 2014.
Federal investigators concluded that co-pilot Alsbury unlocked the craft’s tail feathering system before he should have on the doomed test flight. The twin tail booms are supposed to be unlocked and rotated later in the SpaceShipTwo flight sequence, once the craft drops below a certain speed on re-entry.
The new VSS Unity rocket plane incorporates several new safety measures that should prevent pilots from prematurely unlocking the feathering mechanism, which is used to help steer and re-orient the craft as it glides back to Earth.
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Branson tweeted after the test flight that: “virgingalactic back on track. Successful powered flight, Mach 1.6. Data review to come, then on to the next flight. Space feels tantalizingly close now”.