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Watch this ground view of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane soaring toward space

Virgin Galactic achieved a successful test flight of its rocket-powered spaceplane on Saturday, May 22, that saw the vehicle and its two pilots reach an altitude of 55.45 miles.

The third powered flight of its VSS Unity spaceplane takes the team another step closer toward the launch of space tourism services for high-paying customers.

Saturday’s mission started with Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve mothership carrying VSS Unity and its two pilots — CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay — to an altitude of around 50,000 feet. Eve then released Unity, after which the spaceplane’s rocket engine fired up to blast it toward the edge of space.

A short while later, Unity glided back to Earth for a safe landing at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico.

The team released dramatic footage of the successful mission, which Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson described as “an important milestone” for the company.

It also released a video (below) showing the view from the ground as Unity’s rocket powered up seconds after falling away from Eve.

60 seconds of rocket burn, straight into space. #UNITY21 #VirginGalactic

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 22, 2021

Following the successful test mission, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said the flight “showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico.”

Colglazier added: “Space travel is a bold and adventurous endeavor, and I am incredibly proud of our talented team for making the dream of private space travel a reality. We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”

Space tourism

Virgin Galactic will compete with the likes of Blue Origin, a company led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in the space tourism market.

Although both transportation systems feature reusable vehicles, the designs are very different. Virgin Galactic, for example, uses a carrier aircraft to get a spaceplane into the sky, while Blue Origin uses a rocket and a space capsule.

Both experiences will take paying passengers close to the Kármán line 62 miles above Earth — the altitude generally considered as the edge of space — where they’ll be able to enjoy spectacular views and a brief period of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic has already been taking bookings for its flights, charging $250,000 per seat, though it’s yet to offer a firm date for when its commercial service will start. Blue Origin is yet to announce the cost of a seat for its experience, though it’s expected to be similar to Virgin Galactic’s fee.

Blue Origin is gearing up for its first crewed flight in July, and is currently running an auction for the first tourist seat.

It’s widely thought that both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could launch their commercial space tourism services sometime next year.

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