Virgin Galactic makes first test flight to outer space from Spaceport America, New Mexico

VSS Unity in space over New Mexico ©Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has successfully made its first rocket-powered flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico to outer space, some 55 miles (89 kilometers) above sea level. The two pilots were on board the VSS Unity shuttle which launched from VMS Eve, travelling at up to three-times the speed of sound during the flight, before gliding back down through the atmosphere and landing back at Spaceport.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson told The Associated Press that commercial flights could begin next year. “Today was just an incredible step in the right direction,” said Branson. “It tested a lot of new systems that the teams have been building and they all worked.” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said at least two more undated test flights lie ahead — the next with four mission specialist passengers in the cabin. Pending trials also include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space.

“The flight today was elegant, beautiful,” Colglazier said. “We’re going to analyze all the data that we gather on these flights. But watching from the ground and speaking with our pilots, it was magnificent. So now it’s time for us to do this again.”

Virgin Galactic said the flight provided an assessment of upgrades to a horizontal stabilizer, other flight controls and a suite of cabin cameras designed to provide live images of the flight to people on the ground. In addition, the shuttle carried a scientific payload as part of a cooperation with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Preparations for the latest flight included a maintenance review of the special carrier plane that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to a high altitude prior to it firing its rocket motor as it then pushes towards space.

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