Success: Virgin Galactic spaceship reaches suborbit

·2 min read

May 22—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket reached space about 9:30 am MT after taking off from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico about an hour earlier.

"VSS Unity, our two pilots and @NASA_Technology supported experiments are now in space," Virgin Galactic tweeted at 9:33 am.

The mothership, VMS Eve, carried the Unity on its underbelly to about 44,000 feet, where the spaceship broke away from Eve, fired up its rocket motors and shot into space at about 50 miles up.

Shortly after, the rocket headed back down to Earth, successfully gliding down to the Spaceport America runway for a landing at about 9:44 am.

It' was Virgin Galactic's first successful space flight from New Mexico, following failure of its last attempt to reach space in December. That previous fight was aborted because of technical problems right after Unity fired up its engines. The rocket computer unexpectedly rebooted due to a computer glitch caused by electromagnetic interference on the spaceship, which triggered a safety mechanism that immediately shut down the rocket engine, allowing the two pilots to glide back down to Earth.

No problems were reported in Saturday's flight. Its success puts Virgin Galactic back on track with its test-flight program, which includes a second flight that could happen in the next few weeks with a full company team in the passenger cabin, followed by a third flight this summer with Virgin Galactic founder Sir. Richard Branson on board.

The Branson flight will mark a turning point, paving the way for the company to begin commercial operations with paying passengers on board. That, however, won't actually happen until early 2022, because the company has scheduled a four-month maintenance interlude in the fall for upgrades and routine work on Eve and the Unity Spaceship.

It will, however, fly a four-member passenger crew from the Italian Air Force to space in early fall for experiments in microgravity and future-astronaut training.

Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot CJ Sturckow flew on Unity's Saturday flight, the same two-man crew that operated the spaceship in December.

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