A successful powered test of rocket-plane VSS Unity has given space tourism company Virgin Galactic something to brag about, and generated a huge sense of relief for a company that has had a less than silky smooth path to space.
When Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, they seemed to be at the forefront of commercial space flight. Designer Burt Rutan had just wowed the world with SpaceShipOne, which made multiple flights to altitudes of over 100 kilometers becoming the first privately built and funded manned craft to reach space and winning the Ansari X-Prize. Billionaire Richard Branson stepped in to launch Virgin Galactic based off an expanded version of Rutan’s design, with plans for making suborbital tourist flights by 2009.
But up-scaling the SpaceShipOne design, and making it safe enough for passengers, turned out to be a bigger task than expected. Virgin’s passenger ship required multiple redesigns, and had problems with the rocket motor, including a 2007 explosion on a test stand. While other companies like SpaceX went from first flights to landing NASA contracts, Virgin was still inching forward. Even in the short-hop tourist space business, Virgin has since picked up a competitor in the form of the Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin, which first launched their suborbital New Shepard rocket in 2015 and plans to launch manned flights this year.
Virgin’s progress was further slowed in October 2014, when rocket plane VSS Enterprise crashed during a powered test flight over the Mohave Desert. One pilot was able to parachute to safety, but the other pilot died after the unique “feathering system” designed for the space-skimming craft deployed too early. Since that day, Branson’s space tourism business has resumed a slow and careful approach to returning to powered flight. The second example of the SpaceShipTwo design, VSS Unity, was unveiled in 2016, with safety systems that designed to prevent a repeat of the 2014 disaster.
Finally, on Thursday, Virgin Galactic was back in the rocket game. After eleven high altitude glide tests, pilots kicked on the rockets of Unity and took it supersonic on a test flight that ended with a successful landing at Mohave Airport. The larger carrier craft that ferries the small rocket plane to altitude also landed safely a few minutes later.
During its flight, Unity reached Mach 1.6—about 1,200 mph. It is unclear what altitude was reached. Unity was angled steeply up in flight, but its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, was traveling at more than 2,100 mph when it reached space.