Watch Virgin Galactic’s tourist spacecraft reach its highest altitude to date

Any of the hundreds of people who’ve already paid $250,000 for the ride of a lifetime with Virgin Galactic will be eyeing their ticket with growing excitement following another successful test flight by the team on Thursday, July 26.

For the third time in four months, Richard Branson’s private space company achieved a flawless rocket-powered supersonic test flight of VSS Unity, the two-crew, six-passenger spacecraft that will one day take paying space tourists some 62 miles (100 km) above the surface of the Earth.

Following a smooth release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 feet (14,175 meters) over California’s Mojave Desert, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci fired up the spacecraft’s rocket motor before embarking upon a near-vertical climb at 2.47 times the speed of sound to an altitude of 32 miles (50 km), Virgin Galactic said in a report on its website.

Notably, Thursday’s test flight took Unity to its highest altitude yet, and about halfway to its target altitude at the edge of space.

It also enabled the team to gather valuable data in a number of areas, including supersonic aerodynamics and thermal dynamics. Other sensors aboard Unity measured precise cabin conditions during powered flight.

After landing safely back at Mojave Air and Space Port, chief pilot Mackay described the experience as “a thrill from start to finish.”

He added: “Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again and Sooch pulled off a smooth landing. This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit … and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent.”

Sooch was no less enthusiastic about the experience: “Having been a U2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 feet was just totally amazing.”

The pilot described the flight as “exciting and frankly beautiful,” adding, “We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”

With the team’s confidence growing, Branson said this week that a commercial service for so-called “space tourists” could launch by the end of this year.

Branson, who’s already training for a place on the debut flight, said recently that Virgin Galactic is neck and neck with Blue Origin — owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos — in the race to launch the first commercial space tourism service.

But never far from the team’s mind is the disaster Virgin Galactic suffered in 2014 when one of its pilots died in a failed test flight.

“Ultimately, we have to do it safely,” Branson said recently. “It’s more a race with ourselves to make sure we have the craft that are safe to put people up there.”

Virgin Galactic suspended air operations for two years following the tragedy before embarking on a glide test of its then-new spaceplane, VSS Unity, in 2016.

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