Virgin Galactic is inching closer and closer to making its commercial spaceflight service a reality. The company just completed yet another test flight of its rocket-powered spaceplane, reaching the highest altitude yet of 55.87 miles (89.8 kilometers). At this rate, founder Richard Branson has expressed optimism that he’ll be able to fly into space to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer.
As with all Virgin Galactic flights, the process starts with a conventional airplane-style lift off from the Mojave Air & Space Port north of Los Angeles. Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo links up to the carrier jet, known as WhiteKnightTwo for this phase of the test. The twin-fuselage carrier takes the spaceplane up, but it can’t get anywhere near space. Just before noon local time on Friday (February 22), SpaceShipTwo (also known as VSS Unity) undocked from WhiteKnightTwo and fired its engine.
At the controls for the flight were pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot Mike Masucci. Also on board was Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Her role was to get a feel for the cabin experience in order to prepare future passengers. For this flight, the company also configured the rocket for a longer engine boost similar to what it will need when carrying passengers. Check out the video of the rocket motor burn:
This marks the fifth time Virgin Galactic has flown VSS Unity with the rocket engine. Each time, it pushes the altitude a little higher. It started at 16 miles, then 21.7 miles, 32.3 miles, 51.4 miles in December, and now 55.87 miles. That’s a record for Virgin Galactic, as was the top speed of mach 3.04 (2,332 miles per hour).
Whether this counts as “space” depends on your definition. The Air Force considers anything above 50 miles to be space and awards astronaut wings to pilots who reach that point. However, many prefer to use the Karman Line, which starts at 62 miles (100 km). The Federal Aviation Administration awarded the pilots of Virgin’s last flight commercial astronaut wings.
The ultimate goal is to take passengers on a non-orbital flight to the edge of space. The trip won’t be long, but Virgin Galactic guarantees several minutes of weightlessness before the plane heads down for a landing. The flight costs $ 250,000 per seat, and the company says it’s booked out through 2021. By comparison, Elon Musk thinks he’ll be able to fly you to Mars for about twice that much.
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