Space tourism firm Virgin Galactic conducted a series of glide tests but had not fired up the spaceship’s rocket-powered motor. The spaceship, dubbed VSS Unity by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking during a 2016 ceremony, has now undergone 12 total flight tests.
Thursday’s successful test is a milestone for Virgin Galactic’s testing program and puts the company one step closer toward its goal of ferrying tourists into suborbital space for a price tag of $250,000. Four years ago, a previous version of SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair during a powered test flight, killing one of two pilots.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the failure was caused by premature deployment of a feather system designed to help the space plane reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The agency later faulted that spaceship’s builder, Scaled Composites, saying the design should have protected against human error.
Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved spaceplane building duties in-house and VSS Unity was built by the Spaceship Co., which operates at the Mojave Air & Space Port.
In previous test flights, Unity either remained attached to Virgin Mother Ship Eve, the specially designed jet that carries it aloft, or was released to glide back to the ground without lighting its engine.
Pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay were in the cockpit of Unity as it took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 8.02am attached to VMS Eve and climbed to an altitude of 46,500 feet over the Sierra Nevada.
Unity was released and a few seconds later its engine ignited.
The spaceship climbed steeply and went supersonic — Mach 1.87 — during the 30-second rocket burn.
Photo Marcel van Leeuwen