Virgin Galactic has made its first rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the fringe of space in a manned shuttle.
Two pilots made the flight in the VSS Unity as Virgin Galactic moves towards offering tourist trips to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.
A live feed by NASASpaceFlight.com showed the rocket ship accelerating upward and estimated it reached a top altitude of at least 50 miles.
The website later confirmed a landing via radar.
The first-powered test in New Mexico from Spaceport America had been delayed repeatedly before Saturday’s launch.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson later retweeted a Virgin Galactic tweet which said that the two pilots and a research payload belonging to NASA had reached space.
Sir Richard also shared a video of himself celebrating the mission.
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The company is aiming for commercial operations to begin next year following testing and a few months of downtime for maintenance and other upgrades.
That testing will include a flight that will take Sir Richard to the edge of space later this year.
In December 2020, computer trouble caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship’s rocket from firing properly.
Delighted to be on the flightline to watch @VirginGalactic’s first human spaceflight from the majestic Spaceport America @Spaceport_NM#UNITY21pic.twitter.com/FcpCxJcjqS
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) May 22, 2021
Instead of soaring toward space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.
While Virgin Galactic’s stock price ticked up this week with the announcement of the latest test being scheduled for Saturday, it was not enough to overcome the losses seen since a peak in February.
Some analysts have cautioned that it could be a while before the company sees profits as the exact start of commercial operations is still up in the air.
Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch four people into space in its first all-civilian flight in September. That should be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station.
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its programme for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.
It is planning for lift-off of its first crewed flight on 20 July, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before – the first time was from California in December 2018. The company marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.
Preparations for the latest attempt included a maintenance review of the special carrier plane that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to a high altitude, where it is released so it can fire its rocket motor and make the final push to space.
The flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before the rocket motor is turned off and the crew prepares to re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a landing.
As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows and stabilises the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.