Whether it’s Branson or Bezos who gets their first, the fact is that commercial suborbital space tourism flights may well be just around the corner. For those with the cash to splash, at least.
In a stunning display of its technology over California’s Mojave Desert on Tuesday, Branson’s Virgin Galactic team completed its second successful rocket-powered test flight of VSS Unity, the two-crew, six-passenger aircraft that will one day take moneyed folks to the edge of space, 62 miles above Earth.
As planned, Unity’s rocket motor burned for 31 seconds during the test flight, propelling it to a speed of Mach 1.9 and an altitude of 114,500 feet (34,900 meters).
The focus of this latest flight was to help the team increase its understanding of the spaceplane’s “supersonic handling characteristics and control system’s performance with vehicle parameters that were closer to the ultimate commercial configuration,” Virgin Galactic said on its website.
The entire outing was captured in a slickly edited video that opens with images of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft shortly before it took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. There’s a quick shot of Branson signing autographs before we see the two pilots, Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky, making their way to Unity. Watch as WhiteKnightTwo, with Unity attached to its underside, takes off and climbs to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet, at which point the carrier releases the spaceplane. As Unity begins to drop, we see its rocket engine fire up, causing the aircraft to launch into a spectacular climb. Unity landed safely a short time later.
Branson, who himself is planning to be on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight when operations commence possibly in the next 12 months, said afterwards: “It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space.”
The British billionaire added, “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking — we are getting ever closer to realizing our goals.”
Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin?
Virgin Galactic considers its main competitor in the suborbital space tourism race to be Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket has so far completed eight successful test launches since its first one in 2015.
Branson said recently that his team is “neck and neck” with Blue Origin to launch a service for tourists, a trip that comes with mind-blowing vistas of Earth and beyond, as well as several minutes of weightlessness.
But mindful of the disaster that hit Virgin Galactic four years ago when one of its pilots died in a failed test flight, the Virgin boss said, “Ultimately, we have to do it safely. It’s more a race with ourselves to make sure we have the craft that are safe to put people up there.”
Virgin Galactic grounded its aircraft for two years after the accident, recommencing operations in 2016 with the first glide test of its then-new spaceplane, VSS Unity.
In April it took a significant step forward with its first jet-powered test of Unity, with the successful outing leading to Tuesday’s second powered flight.
Virgin Galactic has already taken around 700 bookings for its suborbital tourist flights, each one costing $250,000.