Sorry, Elon. The title of market leader of the commercial spaceflight industry officially belongs to Sir Richard Branson. Because on Friday, Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, the VSS Unity, made its second trip into sub-orbital space, proving to the world that the company’s historic December launch wasn’t just a fluke, and earning Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor, the distinction of being the first woman to ever reach space on a commercial flight.
The test flight, which took off from a launchpad in California’s Mojave Desert, was manned by the same two pilots who earned their astronaut wings from the FAA after the company’s December flight.
Here’s a description of the flight, courtesy of the Verge:
As usual, VSS Unity was lofted to an initial altitude of around 45,000 feet by its huge carrier aircraft, WhiteKnight Two, where it was then released into the air. The two pilots of this morning’s flight, Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci, ignited the spaceplane’s engine and climbed to an altitude of 55.85 miles (89.9 kilometers), the highest the vehicle has gone yet. During the test, the vehicle reached a top speed of three times the speed of sound — the fastest ever for Virgin Galactic — before shifting its wings and gliding back to Earth to land on a runway.
While the December flight was manned solely by the two pilots, Moses tagged along in the cabin to get a better understanding of the “customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” according to a statement from the company. Once the company starts flying commercial passengers – at an estimated price of $250,000 a pop – Moses will be responsible for preparing future passengers about what to expect during the flights.
The three people aboard the flight become the 569th, 570th and 571st people to ever reach space.
According to RT, Chief pilot Dave Mackay said the stunning view of Earth surpassed all of their expectations.
“For the three of us today, this was the fulfillment of lifelong ambitions, but paradoxically is also just the beginning of an adventure which we can’t wait to share with thousands of others,” he said.
The company released video of the flight…
…as well as a brief video depicting what Earth looked like from the passengers’ vantage point:
Several other companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos Blue Origin are still testing unmanned rockets. But both executives are no doubt aware of the fact that, after Friday’s launch, the competition to “own” commercial space travel is heating up.