Virgin Galactic completes its last test flight before taking paying customers to space

Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight on Thursday before taking paying customers on brief trips to space, marking what the space tourism company described as a “fantastic achievement”.

Six of the company’s employees, including two pilots, landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after the short round-trip flight that included a few minutes of weightlessness.

It took the mothership about an hour to transport the spaceplane to an altitude of 13,563 meters (nearly 44,500 feet), where it was released and fired its rocket engine to make the final thrust.

“Boost succeeded, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!” tweeted Virgin Galactic.

It reached an altitude of 87 kilometers before descending to the runway, according to the company.

Jamila Gilbert, who grew up in southern New Mexico and leads the company’s internal communications, was among those on board assessing what it would be like for paying customers.

“It’s hard to put into words what this experience was like, but I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying,” Gilbert said in a statement after the flight.

“As one of the few non-technical people to fly in space, my role in this mission marks a sea change in who can go into space, and is a promising sign of the opportunities that Virgin Galactic and the commercial space sector open.”

Gilbert looks out of one of the windows as she experiences weightlessness during the test flight. (Virgin Galactic/Associated Press)

The flight took place nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos ended up flying nine days later from West Texas, and Blue Origin has since launched multiple passenger trips.

Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops, and in 2021 finally won federal government approval.

The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyze data from Thursday’s flight and inspect planes and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial service, possibly as early as late June.

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Judy Anderson, a retired science teacher from Winnipeg, has been planning a trip to space with billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for more than a decade and has put down a $20,000 deposit on the $200,000 ticket. She says her trip seems closer to reality after Branson’s trip on Sunday.

Tickets now US$450,000

The initial commercial flight will include members of the Italian Air Force conducting experiments. Next are customers who bought tickets years ago to try their luck in weightlessness aboard a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane.

Around 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch costing US$200,000 each. Tickets now cost US$450,000 per person.

Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will aim for 400 flights a year from Spaceport America once it finishes building its next class of rocket-powered aircraft at a facility in nearby Arizona.

After Branson’s trip, the Federal Aviation Administration banned flights as it investigated a problem that caused the rocket to drift off course as it descended to its runway in the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic insisted at the time that Branson and the others were never in danger.

The company made changes to its carrier aircraft and space plane. The delay was almost twice as long as expected, partly due to supply chain issues and labor shortages.

The exterior of a spaceship against a dark sky with the earth in the background
Earth is seen from Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane as it reaches an altitude of approximately 87 kilometers. (Virgin Galactic/Associated Press)

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