Maintaining a rapid-fire, launch-per-month pace, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic sent a crew of six, including three space tourists, on a brief rocketplane ride out of the lower atmosphere Friday in the company's fourth suborbital spaceflight with aboard.
Joining two Virgin Galactic pilots and the company's chief astronaut trainer aboard the VSS Unity spaceplane, British advertising executive Trevor Beattie, American science popularizer Ron Rosano and Namira Salim, the first Pakistani to fly in space, lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico around noon EDT.
Attached to the wing of Virgin's twin-fuselage Eve carrier jet, the two craft climbed to an altitude of about 44,000 feet and after final checks, the spaceplane was released to fly on its own. As it fell away, commander Kelly Latimer and co-pilot Rick Sturckow, a former space shuttle commander, fired up the spacecraft's hybrid rocket motor to begin the climb to space.
Angling almost straight up and accelerating to nearly three times the speed of sound, the rocket motor shut down about two minutes after ignition. At that point, continuing upward on a ballistic trajectory, the three passengers and Virgin astronaut trainer Beth Moses were able to unstrap and float about the cabin as Unity arced over and began falling back to Earth.
Virgin Galactic said the spaceplane reached a maximum altitude of 54.3 miles, just above the somewhat arbitrary 50-mile "boundary" of space, recognized by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, where aircraft are no longer affected by aerodynamic forces.
It was Latimer's second spaceflight and her first as mission commander. Sturckow flew to orbit four times aboard NASA's space shuttle and has now made five suborbital flights aboard Unity. It was the sixth suborbital flight for Moses.
Beattie, Rosano and Salim all bought tickets to fly aboard Virgin's spaceplane more than 15 years ago when the program was first announced.
"It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new bloody SpaceShip. For me. And I'm feeling goooood," Beattie tweeted before launch.
Among the items Beattie carried aloft with him: a check for $2.23 signed by Orville Wright in 1923.
"In 1903 Orville Wright wrote his name into history, making humankind's first powered flight," Beattie posted. "In 1923 Wright wrote a cheque for $2.23. In 2023 Orville's cheque will fly weightlessly in Space with me. Having been neatly folded into this paper plane."
The flight was Virgin's fourth commercial mission and its fifth in four-and-a-half months. Virgin officials say some 800 applicants are on the waiting list to fly aboard the company's spaceplane.
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has offered commercial suborbital flightssince 2021, but the company is currently grounded amid work to resolve a booster problem that derailed an unpiloted research mission last year.
The Federal Aviation Administration has completed its analysis of the mishap and company officials say flights are expected to resume shortly.
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