After barely 20 years, Virgin Galactic rocket plane of Sir Richard Branson , Unity, has finally started performing commercial flights. Three Italians were able to conduct scientific experiments in a weightless environment on Thursday thanks to the vehicle’s high-altitude flight over the desert in New Mexico.
Instead of just being a test flight, it was the first mission that was “purchased”.
Sir Richard Branson will now begin sending up the 800 or so individuals who’ve bought tickets to ride on Unity.
Spaceport America launched the 72-minute mission at 0830 local time (1430 GMT) and livestreamed it worldwide.
Just under an hour into the mission, after reaching an altitude of 44,500ft (13,600m), the carrier plane, Eve, then released Unity to ignite its engine and boost up to the edge of space. At the top of its climb, the rocket plane was at 279,00ft (85km).
US multi-millionaire Dennis Tito became the world’s first ever space tourist in 2001, paying a reported $20m; and more recently Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin beat Virgin Galactic in the race to take paying passengers on short hops above the atmosphere.
The Amazon founder has a rocket and capsule system he calls New Shepard. It’s a different approach to Unity but provides a similar flight experience.
Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over a decade to get their chance to visit the edge of space; and most will have a long wait still.
Unity can carry only a handful of passengers at a time, and with a mission rate of one outing per month it will take a while to work through the backlog.