Virgin Galactic completed its first successful space flight in more than two years on Saturday, with its crewed VSS Unity spacecraft lifted to an altitude of over 44,000 feet before returning safely to Earth. It marked the first space flight from New Mexico, making it the third US state to launch humans into space. The New Mexico state flag’s Zia sun symbol was displayed on the exterior of the ship.
Virgin’s VMS Eve aircraft carrier took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at around 10:35 a.m.ET with Unity on board. About 10 minutes before release, Unity switched to its own battery power and performed flight checks and electrical checks. Once freed by Eve, Unity pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay ignited the rocket motor and then shut it down a few minutes later, the momentum of the spacecraft causing it to travel to its peak, or point the higher.
Unity reached a speed of Mach 3 after being freed from Eve and reached space at an altitude of 55.45 miles. It peaked at around 11:30 a.m. ET, made a slow turn, then returned to Earth’s atmosphere, landing at around 11:43 a.m. ET on the same Spaceport America runway where its flight began.
“Today’s flight demonstrated the elegance and safety inherent in our space flight system, while marking a major breakthrough for Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico,” said Virgin CEO Galactic Michael Colglazier in a statement Saturday after Unity and Eve returned to earth. “We will immediately begin processing the data obtained from this successful test flight and look forward to sharing news on our planned next step.
Saturday’s flight, which also carried research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, is the latest step towards Virgin Galactic’s goal of a space tourism program. The company has some 600 ticket reservations for future space flights, which cost around $ 250,000 each. Unity can carry up to six passengers and two pilots.
It was Virgin Galactic’s first space flight since 2019, and the third it’s completed. Unity’s first two flights, in late 2018 and early 2019, were conducted at the company’s test facilities at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. Virgin Galactic then moved its operations to Spaceport America, where it plans to conduct all of its commercial tourist flights. The company had to halt its first attempted flight at the new facility in December, after Unity’s engine shut down early before it returned to Earth.
Virgin Galactic said in February, and confirmed in its May 10 earnings call, that it had a total of four space flights planned this year. The next flight is expected to have two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees as passengers, and a third flight is expected to have Virgin founder Richard Branson on board. Flight four is intended to be a commercial flight for the Italian Air Force, which is expected to generate $ 2 million in revenue.
Saturday’s flight was the 400th FAA-cleared commercial space launch. The dates of future Unity flights have yet to be announced.
Updated May 22 at 2:17 p.m. ET: Adds details of Virgin Galactic on the flight