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Virgin Galactic sub-orbital test flight aims to clear the way for commercial trips to space

Virgin Galactic launched its sub-orbital spaceplane "Unity" on its first crewed flight in two years, carrying two pilots and four company astronauts to the edge of space in a final test flight before paying customers begin sub-orbital jaunts in June.

The sleek rocketplane, bolted under the wing of Virgin's twin-fuselage VMS Eve carrier jet, took off Thursday from the company's Spaceport America runway in New Mexico at 11:15 a.m. EDT. Looking on was company founder Richard Branson, who was on board for Unity's last flight to space in 2021.

After climbing to an altitude of 44,500 feet, Unity was released around 12:23 p.m., followed seconds later by ignition of its hybrid rocket motor. The spacecraft instantly shot forward and accelerated, pitching up into a near-vertical climb high above the New Mexico desert.

A camera on Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceplane captured a dramatic view of Earth and the ship's unique rotating wings near the top of the trajectory more than 50 miles above New Mexico. Virgin Galactic

Burning rubberized solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, the rocket fired for about one minute, accelerating the craft to about three times the speed of sound before shutting down.

With commander Mike Masucci and co-pilot Rick Sturckow at the controls, the spaceplane continued zooming upward on a ballistic trajectory, giving the four Virgin passengers — astronaut trainer Beth Moses, Luke Mays, Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert — a chance to unstrap and briefly float about the cabin.

Before reaching the top of the trajectory at an altitude of 54.2 miles, Masucci and Sturckow, a former space shuttle commander, "feathered" Unity's wings, which rotated up to provide the aerodynamic shape needed to control re-entry. The spacecraft then arced over and began the long plunge back to Earth.

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration consider 50 miles the "boundary" of space, the altitude at which aerodynamics no longer has a discernible effect on a vehicle's flight.

Once back in the lower atmosphere, the wings rotated back to their normal orientation and the pilots guided the glider to landing on Spaceport America's 12,000-foot runway, touching down at 12:37 p.m. It was Virgin's fifth crewed spaceflight, the third for Masucci, Sturckow and Moses and the first for their crewmates.

"The Unity 25 mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic," CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. "Witnessing our inspiring crew's pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers.

"Our teams now begin post-flight analysis as well as preparation for 'Galactic 01,' our commercial research mission planned tor late June."

Virgin Galactic astronaut Jamila Gilbert looks down at Earth through an overhead window while crewmate Luke Mays, left, looks on. Virgin Galactic

Said Branson: "Huge congratulations to all the team and especially mission specialists Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, and Luke Mays on becoming the newest Virgin Galactic astronauts."

Thursday's flight was the Unity rocketplane's first trip to space since Virgin founder Richard Branson, Masucci, Moses and three other company crewmates completed a dramatic test flight on July 11, 2021.

Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are competing in the space tourism marketplace, offering up-and-down sub-orbital thrill rides to the edge of space and back. They also offer space for microgravity research flights with, or without, passengers.

But the companies have taken dramatically different approaches, with Virgin's air-launched rocketplane competing with Blue Origin's more traditional ground-launched rocket and separate New Shepard crew capsule.

Branson and Bezos both flew aboard their respective spacecraft in July 2021, but one month later, Virgin announced commercial space tourism flights would be delayed pending additional tests of the spaceplane and upgrades to the Eve carrier jet.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, pressed ahead with commercial launches and has now flown six piloted flights and two unpiloted research missions. Both companies have suffered an in-flight failure.

Blue Origin's most recent flight in September 2022, carrying 36 microgravity experiments, suffered a booster malfunction that destroyed the rocket while the New Shepard capsule safely landed. Virgin Galactic suffered a catastrophic failure in 2014 that killed one of the two pilots on board.

Blue Origin has not said when it plans to resume flights, but Virgin Galactic plans to begin launching its first paying customers in June.

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