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Virgin Galactic completes first spaceflight in over two years

The spaceflight is the company’s first since February 2019, its first in New Mexico, and its third to date.
VSS Unity is released from VMS Eve over Spaceport America in New Mexico on May 22, 2021.
VSS Unity is released from VMS Eve over Spaceport America in New Mexico on May 22, 2021.Virgin Galactic
/ Source: CNBC.com

Virgin Galactic took a step closer to completing development of its space tourism system on Saturday, successfully flying its first spaceflight in more than two years.

The company’s spacecraft, named VSS Unity, was carried up to an altitude of about 44,000 feet by a carrier aircraft called VMS Eve. The aircraft then released the spacecraft, which fired its rocket engine and accelerated to more than three times the speed of sound.

After performing a slow backflip in microgravity at the edge of space – reaching an altitude of 89.2 kilometers, or about 293,000 feet – Unity returned through the atmosphere in a glide. The spacecraft landed back at the runway of Spaceport America in New Mexico that it took off from earlier.

“It was flawless,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told CNBC about the flight.

Pilots C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay flew Unity. The pair have previously flown to space, as well as fellow Virgin Galactic pilots Michael “Sooch” Masucci and Mark Stucky and chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, who have each been given astronaut wings after the company’s first two spaceflights.

The U.S. officially consider pilots who have flown above 80 kilometers to be astronauts. 

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft Unity is designed to hold up to six passengers along with the two pilots. The company has about 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each.

The spaceflight is the company’s first since February 2019, its first in New Mexico, and its third to date. Virgin Galactic flew two spaceflight tests from its development facility in California’s Mojave Desert, before moving to its operational base at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson was personally in attendance at the spaceport to watch the flight. Watching alongside him was former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson – who helped establish the $218.5 million Spaceport America as the company’s base of operations – and current governor Governor Lujan Grisham.

Board director Adam Bain, who helped take Virgin Galactic public alongside chairman Chamath Palihapitiya, was also at Spaceport America to see the flight. Palihapitiya was not in attendance, but praised the company’s “relentless commitment” in a statement to CNBC.

“Congratulations to the entire Virgin Galactic team on crossing yet another important milestone,” Palihapitiya said.

The company has two remaining Federal Aviation Administration milestones it needs to clear to receive a key license for conducting regular spaceflights. Colglazier said the data collected on the flight “looks solid” and will be sent to the FAA soon.

“We look forward to them having a chance to review the data,” Colglazier said.

Unity also carried three NASA-funded scientific research payloads on this mission, under the agency’s Flight Opportunities program. Colglazier noted that the payloads generated revenue for the company, which expects to disclose the total amount during its second quarter financial report.

Shares of Virgin Galactic climbed 22 percent over the past two days of trading after the company announced plans for the spaceflight test, avoiding a possible maintenance issue that threatened to delay the flight.

The spaceflight is one of four remaining for Virgin Galactic to finish development of its SpaceShipTwo rocket system. The second spaceflight test will carry four passengers to test the spacecraft’s cabin, while the third test is planned to fly founder Sir Richard Branson.

The company’s test flight program has been delayed substantially over the past few months. Saturday’s spaceflight was a redo of a December attempt that was cut short by an an electromagnetic interference issue, and the company’s promised beginning of commercial service has been pushed back from mid-2020 to early 2022.

Colglazier said Virgin Galactic feels “great about the solutions that we had done to squash the electromagnetic interference problem,” and a new digital flight controller recently added worked well – another “checkbox” for the company’s priorities with this flight, he said.