On Thursday, July 26th 2018 Virgin Galactic’s space plane, the VSS Unity, set a new altitude record for Virgin. In it’s third rocket powered supersonic test flight the craft broke previous altitude records, entering the mesosphere, and getting closer to the goal of achieving suborbital weightlessness.
The flight began suspended beneath the belly of a “mothership” craft known as VMS Eve. Together the vessels achieved an altitude of about 50,000 feet before separating. After a brief glide, Unity fired its engines sending it vertically for 42 seconds towards the blackness of space. After reaching a maximum height of almost 171,000 feet (just over 32 miles) the engines cut out and the glide through the mesosphere began. Extending from 31 to 50 miles above sea level, the mesosphere is the highest layer of earth’s atmosphere able to support traditional flight. Beyond it lies true space travel. The craft then glided back down to a safe landing at Mojave International Spaceport, where Virgin Galactic is based.
Virgin Galactic, the “world’s first commercial spaceline,” has already sold about 800 tickets for $250,000 a piece for their sightseeing thrill rides to the edge of space on board future flights. The VSS Unity was designed to carry two pilots and six passengers allowing them to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. The company hopes to begin commercial service by the end of the year, with Richard Branson himself among the first passengers.
This victory was especially important for Branson and the Virgin Galactic group to help them recover from the failure of Unity’s predecessor Enterprise. Enterprise (also known by its design designation SS2-01) suffered catastrophic failure during a test flight in October of 2014which resulted in severe injuries to the pilot, and the death of the co-pilot.