Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo makes a successful debut solo flight

VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, just passed a significant milestone. It went for a casual stroll in the sky on Saturday, though this was just a test glide, as the rockets remained offline. You might recall the first SpaceShipTwo suffered an “in-flight anomaly” during a rocket-powered test on Halloween of 2014.

The ship’s carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo hauled VSS Unity to a very high altitude and then set it free. The Unity then glided back to the Mojave Air and Space Port, with test pilot Mark Stucky and Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot Dave Mackay at the helm. The total travel time was a brisk 10 minutes, MSN reported. The Virgin mogul Richard Branson was naturally on hand to view the proceedings.

According to GeekWire, the purpose of the flight was to test out the plane’s basic performance and handling, and the successful test was another ticked checkbox towards the eventual dream/goal of suborbital flights. More test glides are planned, and they will eventually move onto the real deal: rocket-powered flights. GW adds it will really get serious with eventual test runs “that cross the boundary of outer space (50 miles, according to U.S. Air Force standards; 62 miles, according to international standards).”

Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed in the October 2014 accident, while pilot Pete Siebold suffered serious injuries. An investigation determined pilot error “as well as a number of shortcomings in design and training,” which have been addressed.

If you’re interested in taking a trip on board one of these super shuttles once they go online, you better bring your checkbook. About 700 people are already signed up to do so, ponying up as much as a quarter of a million dollars each for a seat on board what likely be the ride of their lives. GW also says that the “shift to commercial operations at New Mexico’s Spaceport America depends on how the test program goes, but Branson has said he intends to be on the first passenger flight.” No surprise there.

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