Billionaire Richard Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees took a major test flight into space on Sunday, bolstering the company’s plans to launch cruise flights next year.
The space plane landed above Earth in New Mexico at about 9:38 a.m. local time. Branson and the flight crew are expected to discuss the results of the flight at a news conference later on Sunday.
The Virgin Galactic space plane carrying company founder Richard Branson and five employees as planned has separated from a carrier plane to begin its rocket flight.
The VVS Unity aircraft ignited its rocket engine after separating from the carrier aircraft at an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13,700 meters).
The crew planned to climb to about 290,000 feet, or 55 miles (89 kilometers) above ground, before returning to the New Mexico runway. The flight started at 8:40 am local time and the flight was expected to last more than an hour.
The suborbital flight establishes a historic month in the future of space tourism, as Branson looks to demonstrate the capabilities of Virgin Galactic nine days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to fly into space on a rocket built by his Blue Origin space project.
Both companies strive to cater to wealthy tourists who are willing to pay top dollar for a short-term tour of weightlessness and unforgettable views of the earth and sky.
Branson, 70, and his fellow crew members experienced about four minutes of weightlessness. After reaching its highest altitude, the unit was designed to orbit and return to the US Aerospace Complex Airport in New Mexico.
The mission, which took about an hour, was the spacecraft’s 22nd test flight and the first with a large crew.
Virgin Galactic has dubbed the flight Unity 22, the first of two tests the company is planning this summer ahead of an astronaut training mission with Italian Air Force personnel later this year.
During the flight, Branson assesses the customer experience during the flights the company plans to launch, from the preparation process to the completion of the journey on the plane.
Dave McKay “Mack”, Chief Airline Officer, is one of the first hires at Virgin Galactic. A former RAF test pilot and Boeing 747 pilot for Branson-backed Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited, he grew up in a rural village in northern Scotland and became the first Scottish to fly into space.
Michael Masucci “Soch”, pilot. He is a retired US Air Force officer with more than 10,000 hours of experience flying U-2 and F-16 aircraft, along with dozens of other aircraft types. He joined Virgin in 2013 and traveled to space for the first time in 2019.
Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Vice President of Governmental Affairs. You will be doing “experimental research” during the flight with a plant experiment from the University of Florida. Born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, she will become the second Indian-American to travel in space.
Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic engineer. It evaluates cabin procedures during the test flight. Bennett worked for Virgin Galactic as a process engineer for six years in California, according to his LinkedIn page, and previously worked as an engineer at Virgin Atlantic.
Pete Musa, Virgin’s chief astronaut trainer. That flight is her second into space after one in February 2019. With that flight, she will be the 571st Moses to travel into space, according to Virgin Galactic. She will be the test director on Sunday’s flight and cabin captain. Musa worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for 24 years before joining the company. Her husband is Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s head of space missions and safety.