Virgin Galactic launches third suborbital “space tourist” flight

Virgin Galactic launched its fourth suborbital space flight in as many months Friday, sending two company pilots, an astronaut trainer and three space tourists to the edge of space and back.

Carried aloft by Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier jet, the VSS Unity spaceplane was released at an altitude of about 45,000 above the New Mexico desert just west of the White Sands Missile Range.

Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceplane climbed to an altitude of 55 miles during the company’s third fully commercial flight to the edge of space, giving the ship’s six-member crew, including three “space tourists,” about three minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view.

Virgin Galactic

A moment later, the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor ignited with a rush of flame, boosting the futuristic-looking ship on a near-vertical trajectory while accelerating to nearly three times the speed of sound.

The motor shut down about one minute later as planned, kicking off about three minutes of weightlessness as the spacecraft coasted upward to a maximum altitude of 55 miles before arcing over for the long glide back to Earth.

At the controls were Unity commander Nicola Pecile and pilot Michael Masucci, both veterans of earlier Unity flights. Astronaut trainer Beth Moses, making her fifth flight, joined the ship’s three paying passengers in Unity’s cabin: Las Vegan businessman Ken Baxter, Timothy Nash and race car builder Adrian Reynard, both British citizens.

Baxter’s website said he bought the very first ticket to fly on Virgin’s spaceplane back in 2004. His crewmates were close behind.

“Nearly 20 years have past since that day in October of 2004 when I watched an episode of ’60 Minutes’ where Sir Richard Branson at Virgin Atlantic shared his vision for making the wonder of space travel available for the average Joe,” Baxter wrote.

“As Sir Richard shared his vision, my childhood obsession with outer space and rockets was suddenly rekindled. The opportunity to realize my lifelong ambition to experience the spectacular view from space was something I could not resist. … My turn is finally here.”

During about three minutes of weightlessness, the Unity spaceplane’s six-member crew, including three men who bought their tickets nearly 20 years ago, float about the cabin.

Virgin Galactic

A short video clip posted on Virgin’s X feed showed Baxter and company floating about the cabin near the top of the trajectory, clearly elated with the experience of weightlessness and the view of Earth below.

As it began descending, Unity’s two swept-back wings rotated upward, or “feathered,” earlier, worked as designed to orient the spacecraft, increase atmospheric drag and reduce the “loads” acting on the ship during re-entry.

Back in the lower atmosphere, the wings were rotated back down parallel with the fuselage and the pilots guided the spaceplane, now flying as a glider, to touchdown on Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway.

It was Unity’s eighth piloted flight above an altitude of 50 miles — the somewhat arbitrary “boundary” of space recognized by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration — and Virgin’s third fully commercial flight in a row with paying customers aboard.

The first such flight was launched on June 29, carrying three Italian air force researchers aloft for microgravity research. A second commercial launch carried three space tourists up on Aug. 10 as did Friday’s flight. Overall, Virgin Galactic has launched 37 company employees and commercial passengers in Unity’s eight flights to date.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has launched six sub-orbital flights with 32 passengers using its more traditional New Shepard rocket and capsule, is currently in a stand-down while resolving a booster problem that occurred during an unpiloted microgravity research flight last September.

Virgin Galactic’s next flight is planned for October. Blue Origin has not yet announced when it plans to resume flights.