Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight on Thursday before taking paying customers on brief trips to space, marking what the space tourism company described as a “fantastic achievement” in what has been a long road to commercial operations.
Six of the company’s employees, including two pilots, landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after the short up-and-down flight that included a few minutes of weightlessness.
It took about an hour for the mothership to carry the spaceplane to an altitude of 44,500 feet where it was released and fired its rocket motor to make the final push.
“Successful boost, We have reached space!” Virgin Galactic tweeted.
It reached an altitude of 54.2 miles before gliding back down to the runway, according to the company.
Jamila Gilbert, who grew up in southern New Mexico and leads the company’s internal communications, was among those on board who were evaluating what it will be like for paying customers.
It was hard for her to put the experience into words, saying it probably will take a lifetime to process the sights and the feelings that filled those moments between the rocket igniting and the spaceship reaching its highest point.
“It was just this magnetic pull,” she said in an interview. “Once I started looking out, I could feel that I was floating. I could hear voices. But I couldn’t stop looking at the planet, and I couldn’t look away.”
Fellow crew member Christopher Huie said it seems as if everything stopped when the spaceship was released from the carrier plane.
“You’re just waiting for the rocket to light,” said Mr Huie, an aerospace engineer. “And I think that moment had so much anticipation, and I could have lived in that moment forever.”
Then came a little jostle with the firing of the rocket, and the crew were pinned to their seats as the G-forces kicked in.
The flight came nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space.
Mr Bezos ended up flying nine days later from west Texas, and Blue Origin has since launched several passenger trips.
Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Mr Branson’s flight to investigate a mishap.
Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops and in 2021 finally won the federal government’s approval.
The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyse data from Thursday’s flight and inspect the planes and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial service, possibly as soon as late June.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has acknowledged the delays and missed deadlines over the years. But on Thursday, he said seeing the crew’s reactions after landing gave him confidence in what the company has built so far.
The initial commercial flight will include members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct experiments.
Next will come customers who purchased tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness aboard a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane.
About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for 200,000 US dollars each. Tickets now cost 450,000 dollars per person.
Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will be aiming for 400 flights per year from Spaceport America once it finishes building its next class of rocket-powered planes at a facility in neighbouring Arizona.