The future of space tourism is getting brighter as Virgin Galactic brought its first passenger on board a trip to the edge of space on one of its space planes, nudging British billionaire Richard Branson’s company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.
The passenger on board was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer and an aerospace engineer, who flew along with the vehicle’s two pilots. She’s also Virgin Galactic’s first female flyer.
Moses described that it was an “indescribable trip” and that she was riveted and thinks their customers will be as well. “The Earth was beautiful — super sharp, super clear, with a gorgeous view of the Pacific mountains,” she added.
The pilots were Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci.
“This is what we’re here to do, we’re here to fly people in the back of our spaceship, that’s what it’s all about,” said Mackay, who is now the first Scottish-born astronaut. “So for me, it was an important step towards that operation.”
The company demonstrated that its space plane could be reused for flight and was able to repeat its trip from December even higher and faster.
On February 22 at 8 AM local time, the White Knight Two carrier airplane took off soon from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It released the VSS Unity passenger craft at an altitude of about 45,000 feet and then the spaceship was catapulted to 55 miles above Earth.
VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane, took a trip to the edge of space at an altitude of 56 miles— the highest the craft ever reached, on Friday.
During the test, the vehicle reached a top speed three times the speed of sound — the fastest ever for Virgin Galactic — before shifting its wings and gliding back to Earth to land on a runway.
This milestone has been the second time for Virgin Galactic to reach beyond atmosphere with its space planes carrying people on board. Virgin Galactic’s historic first mission to space in December 2018 flew to an altitude of more than 51 miles, which earned commercial astronaut wings for pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow.
A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson says that all three crew members from Friday’s mission, Moses and both pilots, will also earn the designation. Moses will be the first woman ever to receive it.
The flight in December marked as the first US commercial human space flight since the end of America’s shuttle program in 2011.
This was the first time that VSS Unity carried three people, instead of just the two pilots, to space.
Moses, while aboard, got off her seat to get a better view and feel of things while the space plane glides through the edge of Earth’s atmosphere to explore what the “customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” according to the company.
Moses will be responsible for preparing future passengers for what to expect on flights, and today’s flight will provide valuable input for that.
Virgin Galactic also included extra weight in the cabin of VSS Unity to better mimic the weight commercial flights when they are carrying a passenger.
Just like the December test, today’s flight also carried some research payloads, arranged through NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program.
Today’s flight marks the fifth powered flight test of VSS Unity, and Virgin Galactic plans to continue with these flights throughout the year.
Eventually, the company will move to a new location in New Mexico called Spaceport America where it will conduct its future commercial flights. An official date for that move hasn’t been set yet.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he hopes to fly on VSS Unity by the summertime, potentially on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in July.
More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber, have paid or put down deposits to fly on one of Virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over 14 years for their trip.
A 90-minute flight, which allows passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000. Whitesides said he expected that price would initially increase before going down.