Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, has just made a significant breakthrough in commercial space travel. The company sent three Italian researchers, an astronaut trainer, and two pilots to the edge of space aboard its winged rocketplane in the first commercial suborbital space flight. This landmark event in the industry unfolded at Spaceport America in New Mexico, with onlookers consisting of Virgin Galactic employees, friends, and family members.
The Journey Begins
At about 10:30 a.m. EDT, the twin-fuselage VMS Eve carrier jet, a proud achievement of the Galactic, lifted off from the spaceport. Its primary mission was to carry the six passengers and the VSS Unity spaceplane to an altitude of around 45,000 feet. A successful detachment from Eve’s mid-wing attachment mechanism signaled the start of the exciting journey into space.
Ignition and Flight
Following final checks and the opening of the clamps, Galactic’s VSS Unity separated from Eve. In the next few seconds, the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor ignited, propelling the Unity up and out of Earth’s lower atmosphere on a near-vertical trajectory. This exhilarating event was captured by cameras mounted on the hull of the spacecraft, showing the Earth diminishing in size and the sky changing from blue to deep black.
Achieving Supersonic Speed
Only a minute later, the Virgin Galactic spacecraft was already soaring at 2.8 times the speed of sound, and at an altitude of 136,000 feet. The rocket motor was then shut down, leaving the crew members in a state of weightlessness as the Unity coasted up to a height of 51.8 miles. This is above the somewhat arbitrary 50-mile-high “boundary” between space and the discernible atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic’s Feathered Wings
Throughout the journey, pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile performed a unique feathering procedure on the ship’s wings. This move, which involved folding the swept-back wing-tip fins up about 60 degrees, was invented by renowned aircraft designer Burt Rutan to minimize heating and speed during re-entry.
Meanwhile, on board the Virgin Galactic spaceplane, Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, and Pantaleone Carlucci, started conducting and monitoring 13 experiments. These experiments aimed to collect data about the effects of weightlessness on various technological processes and themselves.
Re-entry and Landing
After enjoying approximately three minutes of weightlessness, the crew began their descent back to Earth. The spacecraft rapidly slowed down during re-entry, leading to increasing G-loads. Eventually, Unity’s wings rotated back to their normal positions, and the pilots manually guided the spaceplane to a landing on Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway. The entire journey from launch to landing lasted just under 14 minutes.
A Landmark for Virgin Galactic
This event marked the company’s sixth piloted sub-orbital space flight and the first to carry paying customers. This is a milestone that has taken Virgin Galactic more than a decade longer than anticipated to achieve. To date, Virgin Galactic has now launched 25 people to the edge of space. This includes veteran pilot Masucci making his fourth flight, and Bennett, making his second.
Rivalry with Blue Origin
Virgin Galactic’s space tourism endeavors continue amidst a fierce competition with Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin, with its New Shepard booster and capsule, has launched 32 people on six suborbital space flights.
Virgin Galactic’s Progress: From Catastrophe to Success
Virgin Galactic’s journey to this point wasn’t smooth. The company’s first space flight came in 2018, four years after a devastating test flight that destroyed the original spaceplane, resulting in the death of a co-pilot and severe injury to the pilot due to a prematurely unlocked feather mechanism. After resolving this issue, Virgin Galactic launched four successful test flights consecutively before pausing for two years to upgrade the Eve carrier jet and carry out more modifications.
The Future of Commercial Spaceflight
The commercial spaceflight industry, including Virgin Galactic, is monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, there are plans to establish an Aerospace Rulemaking Committee for recommendations on the scope and costs of future regulations. The FAA is also updating its recommended practices for human spaceflight occupant safety and working with international organizations to develop voluntary consensus standards.
Q1. What was the mission of Virgin Galactic’s latest launch?
Virgin Galactic’s mission was to conduct the first commercial sub-orbital flight, transporting three Italian researchers, an astronaut trainer, and two company pilots to the edge of space.
Q2. How does Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft reach space?
The VSS Unity spaceplane is carried up to an altitude of 45,000 feet by the VMS Eve carrier jet. Once detached, Unity’s hybrid rocket motor ignites, propelling the craft up and out of the Earth’s lower atmosphere.
Q3. How do the crew of Virgin Galactic experience weightlessness?
Once the rocket motor shuts down, the craft coasts upwards, leaving the crew weightless as they reach a maximum altitude of 51.8 miles.
Q4. What is the feathering procedure performed during the flight?
The feathering procedure involves folding the swept-back wing-tip fins up about 60 degrees to minimize heating and speed during re-entry. It’s a unique mechanism invented by aircraft designer Burt Rutan.
Q5. What is Virgin Galactic’s next goal?
Virgin Galactic aims to continue its commercial space flights, constantly improving and evolving its technology while maintaining the highest safety standards. The company will also continue to adhere to the regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory bodies.