The Associated PressMay 25, 2021 10:43:07 AM IST
Virgin Galactic made its first rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the outskirts of space in a manned shuttle on Saturday, as the company strives to offer tourist flights to the far reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Over the desert in a cloudless sky, the VSS Unity fired its rocket to propel the ship and two pilots into space. A live stream from NASASpaceFlight.com showed the ship accelerating upwards and confirmed a later landing via radar. Virgin Galactic announced that its VSS Unity shuttle accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of just over 89 kilometers above sea level before making its gliding return to the atmosphere.
British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the flight and landing brings the company roughly 15 years closer to commercial flights for tourists. Virgin Galactic says those flights could start next year.
âToday was just an incredible step in the right direction,â Branson told The Associated Press shortly after the flight landed. âHe tested a lot of new systems that the teams built and they all worked.â
Apogee. . . Hear the moment our spacecraft pilots reached the highest point of flight, where they made a gentle stop above the brilliant glow of Earth. #VirginGalactic # Unity21 pic.twitter.com/zYfSgKbbi5
– Galactic Virgo (@virgingalactic) May 24, 2021
– Richard Branson (@richardbranson) May 22, 2021
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said at least two more undated test flights are on the way – the next with four mission specialist passengers in the cabin. The pending trials also include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space.
âToday’s flight was elegant, beautiful,â said Colglazier. âWe will analyze all the data we collect on these flights. But looking down and talking to our pilots, it was wonderful. So it’s time for us to start over. “
Virgin Galactic said the flight provided an assessment of improvements to a horizontal stabilizer, other flight controls and a suite of cabin cameras designed to provide live images of the flight to people on the ground. The shuttle also carried a scientific payload in cooperation with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
Preparations for the final flight included a maintenance review of the special carrier aircraft that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to high altitude, where it is released so it can fire its rocket motor and make the final push towards the ‘space.
The rocket’s first powered test in New Mexico from Spaceport America has been repeatedly delayed ahead of Saturday’s launch. In December 2020, computer problems caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spacecraft’s rocket from firing properly. Instead of flying into space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.
While Virgin Galactic’s share price has climbed this week with the news of the last test scheduled for Saturday, that has not been enough to weather losses seen from a peak in February. Some analysts have warned that it could be some time before the company sees profits as the exact start of trading is still pending.
Virgin Galactic is one of the few companies looking to take advantage of customers interested in space.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a billionaire and his contest winners in September. This is expected to be followed in January 2022 by a flight of three businessmen to the International Space Station.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing to get its program off the ground for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts. It plans to take off its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Virgin Galactic has already reached space twice. The first time was from California in December 2018.
Flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) when the rocket engine is turned off and the crew prepares to re-enter the atmosphere and hover for a landing.
As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows down and stabilizes the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.
New Mexico taxpayers have invested over $ 200 million in Spaceport America’s hangar and launch facility near Truth or Consequences, after Branson and then Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, presented the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the primary tenant.
Richardson watched Saturday’s flight from the ground below and then thanked local county residents who pledged a sales tax increase early on to support the business.
âIt’s finally a great day after we’ve all taken a lot of heat – mainly me – over a period of time,â said Richardson. âBut it happened. It succeeded.