Virgin Galactic's newest SpaceShipTwo space plane just flew freely above its New Mexico home base for the first time.
The suborbital spacecraft, named VSS Unity, conducted its first unpowered glide flight over Spaceport America today (May 1), notching a milestone on the path to commercial operations, Virgin Galactic representatives announced.
Unity already had numerous glide and other test flights under its belt. The vehicle has even reached suborbital space twice, on piloted test missions in December 2018 and February 2019. But those flights lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California, near the headquarters of The Spaceship Company, the Virgin Galactic manufacturing subsidiary that built Unity.
SpaceShipTwo Unity completes a runway landing at Spaceport America, New Mexico finishing its first free flight in New Mexico airspace. pic.twitter.com/iJ1sD1cAmWMay 1, 2020
Unity's test campaign had been based in Mojave until February of this year, when the vehicle arrived at Spaceport America beneath the wings of its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, which is called VMS Eve.
The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo is designed to be carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo, then dropped at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). At that point, SpaceShipTwo's onboard rocket motor kicks on, blasting the vehicle up to suborbital space.
That latter step didn't happen during today's glide flight. Unity's pilots, Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow, steered the space plane through some unpowered milestones, reaching a top speed of Mach 0.7, before bringing it down for a runway landing at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic representatives said. (Mach 1 is the speed of sound, which is 767 mph, or 1,234 km/h, at sea level.)
Virgin Galactic took measures to ensure that today's flight was conducted as safely as possible in this coronavirus-pandemic era. The company altered work stations, enforced social distancing procedures and mandated universal mask usage, company representatives said.
"I’d like to congratulate our team for reaching this flight milestone, especially during these challenging times," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. "I am grateful for the commitment displayed by everyone involved, not only in helping to support relief efforts in both New Mexico and California, but also for the dedication and creativity which will allow us to continue safely towards our goal of commercial launch."
Virgin Galactic has not announced a target date for initiation of commercial operations, but it's widely expected to happen soon — perhaps sometime this year.
More than 600 people have booked a seat aboard SpaceShipTwo; tickets currently cost $250,000. People who ride the spacecraft will get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.