Over the weekend, Virgin Galactic took “one giant leap” for the future of space tourism. On Sunday, July 11, VSS Unity successfully reached space, completing the company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight. It was the 22nd test flight of VSS Unity overall and the first test flight with a full crew in the cabin, including the Virgin Group’s founder, Sir Richard Branson.
During the flight, the crew fulfilled several test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America. In all, VSS Unity can carry six passengers, along with two pilots.
VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 (that’s 2,301 mph—more than four times faster than an average commercial airliner) after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve. The vehicle reached space at an altitude of 53.5 miles (over 282,000 feet), before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
See video of Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed spaceflight here:
Some additional fun facts about the flight: The total trip duration was about 90 minutes, including several minutes of weightlessness. It takes VSS Unity about 50 minutes to reach its maximum altitude once it is released from VMS Eve at 50,000 feet.
This was the fourth crewed spaceflight for the ship, having previously done so in December 2018, February 2019 and May of this year.
What does this mean going forward? There will be two more test flights in the coming months, including a revenue-generating flight with the Italian Air Force. Virgin Galactic noted that is on track to commence commercial service in 2022. There are approximately 600 “Future Astronaut”s from 60 countries who have a reservation for a Virgin Galactic flight—including Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew D. Upchurch, who was in attendance for the launch. An additional 1,000 people have placed deposits as part of the company’s “One Small Step” program, which places them front of line for seat reservations once they become available
The mission specialists in the cabin were Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead flight operations engineer; Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations; and the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. The VSS Unity pilots were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, while Kelly Latimer and CJ Sturckow piloted VMS Eve.