Stephen Hawking no doubt would have been pleased.
The late physicist—who’d been offered a future ride on a Virgin Galactic space ship by founder Richard Branson, and whose photographed iris is part of the company’s logo—would likely have applauded yesterday’s first powered flight of VSS Unity. It was the first such test since an accident in 2014 that killed one pilot and destroyed the first and only other SpaceShipTwo built to date, VSS Enterprise.
Yesterday’s test went smoothly, according to Virgin Galactic. Pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky separated Unity from its carrier aircraft at an altitude of 46,500 feet, then fired its rocket motor to reach 84,271 feet before returning to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. The test was not meant to reach the “boundary” of space, which is more than three times higher.
It was the 69th flight for SpaceShipTwo, all but four of which have been gliding flights. Unity was built by Virgin Galactic’s partner, The Spaceship Company.
Other than the technical specifics of the flight, Virgin Galactic didn’t say much yesterday. The company has not revealed how many more test flights are planned, or when tourist flights are likely to begin. An updated fact sheet says only that it will start taking up passengers “once it believes it is safe to do so and has received all regulatory approvals.” That should be good news for the more than 600 people Virgin Galactic says have put down money for reservations.