Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic venture have restarted flights to the edge of space, after a nearly two year break.
Virgin Galactic venture made history in July 2021, when a debut flight from New Mexico carried Sir Richard and three fellow crewmembers, plus two pilots, to its maximum height of 53 miles above the Earth, which is high enough to reach NASA’s classification of ‘astronaut’.
That flight kick-started the space tourism industry, and came ahead of the 11 minute flight of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin venture, after his rocket flew to more than 65 miles above the planet, nine days after the Virgin Galactic flight.
FAA Probe, upgrades
But Virgin Galactic has had to endure a nearly two hiatus since then, and for a while it could not sell space tourism tickets.
During its July 2021 flight with Sir Richard onboard, the space plane had travelled outside its designated airspace for 41 seconds.
The US Federal Aviation Administration then grounded future flights whilst it investigated the brief flight deviation.
At the time Virgin Galactic said the pilots had encountered unexpectedly high winds at high altitude and took the actions necessary to complete a safe climb into space and return to Earth.
The FAA review concluded in September 2021, and Virgin Galactic was given the all clear to resume flights.
But Virgin Galactic then announced it was delaying the resumption of commercial services, because of unrelated technology upgrades.
In February 2022 Virgin Galactic reopened sales of its $450,000 tickets that provides a 90 minute flight to the edge of space.
The space tourism entity planned to resume commercial flights in October 2022.
But the lengthy spacecraft upgrade period lasted longer than Virgin Galactic anticipated.
A spaceplane from Virgin Galactic blasted off toward the edge of space on Thursday carrying a crew of six employees.
The VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America site around 11:17 am EDT, Virgin Galactic said on Twitter.
The spaceplane landed safely, after a 90 minute flight, with VSS Unity reaching 54.2 miles above the earth.
Virgin Galactic hopes to fly its first commercial mission in late June – a long-delayed research flight chartered for the Italian Air Force. The company then expects to carry out a mission roughly every month.
The Virgin Galactic space plane utilises a twin-fuselaged mothership, to carry the spaceplane and its passengers 50,000 feet in the air.
The Virgin Galactic spaceplane is a winged plane with a single rocket motor. It detaches from the mothership before it fires its main rocket, pushing it up to the edge of space.
At the top of the flight path the vehicle is suspended in weightlessness for four minutes, allowing the passengers to enjoy panoramic views of the Earth as the spaceplane rotates and begins its glide down to earth.
Outer space is classified by the United States, the US Federal Aviation Administration, the US military and NASA as starting 50 miles above the earth’s surface.
But an international definition of space is known as the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level.
Blue Origin meanwhile utilises the more traditional rocket approach, on top of which is the passenger capsule.
The rocket after it detaches from the capsule, lands vertically on the launch pad.
At the peak of its flight path, Blue Origin passengers are weightless for about three minutes.
The Blue Origin New Shepard capsule then floats back down to earth thanks to its parachutes.