TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (KRQE) – After more than a decade of promises, speculation, hype, and delays, Virgin Galactic has fulfilled its dreams of becoming the first private company to take a full crew of civilians to space. The company successfully launched and landed its VSS Unity spacecraft from Spaceport American in southern New Mexico Sunday, celebrating a milestone in the realm of privately funded space tourism.
The successful mission took off around 8:30 MDT Sunday morning, about 90 minutes behind schedule due to a weather delay. Around 9:25 a.m., the VSS Unity spacecraft was released from Virgin’s VMS Eve carrier aircraft at an altitude of roughly 46,000 feet. Shortly after, the VSS Unity’s rocket motor burned for roughly one minute, taking the spacecraft up into suborbital space where the crew experienced several minutes of weightlessness.
The spaceship landed safely at the Spaceport America roughly 30 miles south of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico Sunday around 9:40 a.m. In a ceremony on stage, Branson thanked New Mexico among others for helping making the dream a reality.
“The Spaceport is the most stunning building, when you come in the morning and you see this thing emerging from the desert. I think it could be one of the ten wonders of the world,” Branson said. “Thank you to New Mexico for hosting us, for building this, for everything.”
How do Virgin Galactic’s space flights work?
Virgin Galactic’s spacecrafts takeoff from a roughly two-mile-long runway at the Spaceport. A carrier aircraft called the VMS Eve (Virgin Mothership Eve) will take the spacecraft, the VSS Unity (VSS (Virgin Space Ship Unity,) roughly 50,000 feet (~9.4 miles) into the air.
At altitude, the VMS Eve carrier aircraft releases the VSS Unity. After the spaceship drops for a few seconds, pilots ignite a rocket motor on the VSS Unity, propelling the spaceship at nearly three times the speed of sound in a near-vertical climb.
Once the spaceship reaches an altitude of roughly 50 miles above Earth, pilots will stop the rocket motor while the spaceship hovers in microgravity. After several minutes of experiencing weightlessness, the VSS Unity descends back down to Earth, landing at Spaceport America.
Who flew on board the spaceship?
Six people were onboard the VSS Unity’s Sunday flight, including two pilots and crew members. Dave Mackay will serve as the chief pilot on the flight, while Michael “Sooch” Masucci will serve as a co-pilot. Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson will be on board the crew, along with Virgin Galactic employes Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla. CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will be the two pilots flying the VMS Eve.
Of the crew, Beth Moses was the first person to fly in the customer cabin of the spaceship during a test flight in 2019. That flight made Moses the first civilian to fly as a passenger on a privately owned spacecraft. All of the passengers onboard Virgin Galactic’s Sunday flight are employees of the company.
While the company has more than 600 people who’ve paid for a reservation on board a Virgin Galactic flight, it is not expected to carry paying passengers until next year. In a recently news release, the company said, “two additional test flights are planned before (Virgin Galactic) expects to commence commercial service in 2022.”
Sunday’s flight in New Mexico is named Unity 22, marking the 22nd mission the spaceship has flown. Virgin Galactic last successfully tested the spaceship in New Mexico on May 22, 2021.