Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, has successfully conducted its maiden spaceflight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
The test flight marks the first human spaceflight to be launched from the USA since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011 and the first time a crewed vehicle built for commercial passenger service has reached space.
SpaceShipTwo was piloted by Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. During the flight, a 60 second planned rocket motor burn propelled VSS Unity to almost three times the speed of sound and to an apogee of 51.4 miles (82km).
The spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere at Mach 2.5 and used its feathering configuration to slow down and land on a runway. The feathering design feature increases SpaceShipTwo’s drag and stability while descending and is key to its reliable and repeatable re-entry.
Additional safety mechanisms were incorporated into the spacecraft’s design after a test flight accident with the VSS Enterprise in 2014, which occurred while testing the feathering design.
Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, said, “Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space. Today we completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings.
“Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good. We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, 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 the cosmos.
“This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration.”
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, the firm set up by Branson and aviation engineer Burt Rutan to develop and build SpaceShipTwo, said, “Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine.”