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Virgin Galactic completes another test flight, this time with a passenger

VSS Unity lands at Virgin Galactic’s airfield in California’s Mojave Desert on Friday, February 22, 2019 after its fifth successful test flight. Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses rode the company’s spacecraft VSS Unity as its first passenger on Friday, February 22, a key milestone toward commercial availability of the flights later this year. Moses rode along to test “cabin design elements,” the company says.

With the company targeting 2019 as the year to offer commercial flights, it is important for Virgin Galactic to begin to turn its focus to its end goal: Carrying anyone into space. On the previous four test flights, only pilots rode inside the spacecraft. With the addition of Moses as a passenger, it appears that the company is now ready to start fine-tuning the customer experience.

The VSS Unity also set a few other milestones: It reached an altitude of 55.9 miles, the highest a Virgin Galactic craft has gone yet, and reached a top speed of Mach 3.0 during its ascent into space. Following the flight, the Unity glided back to Earth and successfully landed on a runway without any issues about an hour after takeoff.

Inside, Moses and the pilots experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

Moses will eventually help train the hundreds — if not eventually thousands — of individuals willing to pay around $250,000 for the rights to be one of the first private citizens to travel in space. Following the entrance into space, Moses got out of her seat in order to experience the “customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” according to the company.

In addition to the cabin tests, the Unity carried extra weight in to better simulate craft operation with passengers and cargo, something it had also done during its December test, which Virgin Galactic argues was the first one to reach “space.” Several research payloads also came along for the ride thanks to NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

There are no concrete dates for when commercial flights will begin, as the company plans to test the craft several more times, saying it has a “way to go” in testing for various flight factors. Virgin Galactic’s founder, billionaire Richard Branson, says he expects to be able to fly in the craft himself by July, however.

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