Virgin Galactic reached a major milestone on Thursday as it completed its anticipated final test flight before commencing commercial operations to offer brief trips to space for paying customers.
Following a short up-and-down flight that included several minutes of weightlessness, six Virgin Galactic employees, including two pilots, safely landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
The flight involved the mother ship carrying the spaceplane to a high altitude, where the rocket was fired to propel the spacecraft to the edge of space. Excitement ensued as Virgin Galactic tweeted, “Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!”
This achievement comes almost two years after Sir Richard Branson, the company’s founder, made his journey to space, narrowly beating out Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin. Subsequently, Blue Origin has successfully launched multiple passenger trips, while Virgin Galactic faced a temporary ban on launches as federal aviation authorities investigated a mishap following Sir Richard’s flight.
Over the past decade, Virgin Galactic has been diligently working towards realizing its vision of sending paying passengers on short space excursions. In 2021, the company secured approval from the federal government to proceed with its commercial plans.
The initial commercial flight, slated for later this year, will include members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct experiments during the trip. Following this, customers who purchased tickets years ago will finally get their opportunity to experience weightlessness aboard the winged spacecraft, which launches from beneath a carrier aircraft.
To date, around 800 tickets have been sold, with the initial batch priced at $200,000 each. The current ticket price stands at $450,000 per person.
Since 2018, Virgin Galactic has achieved spaceflight on five occasions and aims to reach approximately 400 flights per year from Spaceport America once it completes the construction of its next generation of rocket-powered planes at a site in neighboring Arizona.
Following the previous flight, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded Virgin Galactic as it investigated an incident where the rocket ship deviated from its course during descent. Virgin Galactic made necessary modifications to both the carrier aircraft and spaceplane to address the issue, with the delay in resuming flights being longer than expected due to supply chain challenges and labor shortages.