BERNABE M MONTANO – Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight Thursday before taking paying customers on brief trips to space, marking what the space tourism company described as a “fantastic achievement” in what has been a long road to commercial operations.
Six of the company's employees, including two pilots, landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after the short up-and-down flight that included a few minutes of weightlessness. It took about an hour for the mother ship to carry the spaceplane to an altitude of 44,500 feet (13,563 meters), where it was released and fired its rocket motor to make the final push.
“Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!” Virgin Galactic tweeted.
It reached an altitude of 54.2 miles (87 kilometers) before gliding back down 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 who were evaluating what it will be like for paying customers.
It was hard for her to put the experience into words, saying it probably will take a lifetime to process the sights and the feelings that filled those moments between the rocket igniting and the spaceship reaching its highest point.
“It was just this magnetic pull,” she said in an interview. “Once I started looking out, I could feel that I was floating. I could hear voices. But I couldn’t stop looking at the planet, and I couldn’t look away.”
Fellow crew member Christopher Huie said it seems as if everything stopped when the spaceship was released from the carrier plane.
“You’re just waiting for the rocket to light," said Huie, an aerospace engineer. "And I think that moment had so much anticipation, and I could have lived in that moment forever.”
Then came a little jostle with the firing of the rocket, and the crew were pinned to their seats as the G-forces kicked in.
The flight came 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 several passenger trips. Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson's flight to investigate a mishap.
Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops and in 2021 finally won the federal government's approval.
The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyze data from Thursday's flight and inspect the planes and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial service, possibly as soon as late June.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has acknowledged the delays and missed deadlines over the years. But on Thursday, he said seeing the crew's reactions after landing gave him confidence in what the company has built so far.
The initial commercial flight will include members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct experiments. Next will come customers who purchased tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness aboard a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane.
About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.
Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will be aiming for 400 flights per year from Spaceport America once it finishes building its next class of rocket-powered planes at a facility in neighboring Arizona.
After Branson’s trip, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights as it investigated a problem that caused the rocket ship to veer off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic insisted at the time that Branson and others were never in any danger.
The company made changes to its carrier airplane and the spaceplane. The delay was nearly twice as long as expected, partly because of supply chain issues and labor shortages.
Branson joined a group of customers who watched Thursday's flight from Spaceport America.
Huie, a senior manager with Virgin Galactic's flight sciences engineering team, said the company is ready for commercial service and will be expanding its fleet over the coming years.
“We’re looking to scale up in a big way," he said, "and the goal is to populate lots of spaceports with lots of spaceships and motherships and send hundreds of people every year to space.”