Virgin Galactic made a major leap forward in its aerospace ambitions this week. On Thursday, SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity completed its first successful supersonic, rocket-powered test flight.
The VSS Unity is the first ship built from the ground up by Virgin Galactic’s sister company, The Spaceship Company. The craft launched from the Mojave Desert on April 5 at 8:02am attached to VMS Eve, a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. At 45,600 feet, the Unity was released, at which point it climbed upwards at 80 degrees in a Mach 1.87 climb. After 30 seconds of rocket fuel burn, the ship coasted to an elevation of 84,271 feet, at which its pilots pointed it back toward Earth.
Following the fatal 2014 test flight accident of another ship, the VSS Enterprise, the Unity has a unique safety feature for safe re-entry into the atmosphere: the ability to maneuver its tail booms into a “feathered” configuration.
There’s video from VSS Unity‘s first rocket-powered flight, as well.
With this test flight accomplished, Virgin Galactic says that it’s now ready to enter “the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns.” For now, the company’s engineers will be reviewing the valuable flight, motor, and performance data gleaned from the test flight.
Virgin Galactic’s craft is designed to carry a pair of pilots and up to six passengers who will eventually be able to pony up $250,000 for a trip into space. Passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness at its apogee 62 miles above Earth’s surface—as well as amazing views—before heading back home. Before embarking on the journey, passengers have to complete a three-day training program in New Mexico at Spaceport America.
Virgin chief Richard Branson previously offered world-renowned theoretical physicist Steven Hawking a spot aboard the vessel, but Hawking died March 14 at the age of 78. In 2015, more than 700 individuals had signed up for Virgin Galactic’s upcoming space flights.