Virgin Galactic Scores First Human Spaceflight from New Mexico

Virgin Galactic Scores First Human Spaceflight from New Mexico

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo returned to space today after a more than two-year hiatus. This time the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft departed from a new home, New Mexico’s Spaceport America, making the state just the third U.S. departure point for sending humans into space. The flight marked another milestone, too, the FAA’s 400th licensed commercial space launch.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has spent more than 15 years getting SpaceShipTwo ready for commercial missions. A test flight in 2014 ended tragically, but the company persevered and in December 2018 a two-person crew crossed the 50-mile (80-kilometer) threshold that the FAA uses as demarcation between air and space. Others, including Virgin Galactic competitor Blue Origin, use the international standard of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

The first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise, was destroyed in the 2014 accident. The company was already building the second, VSS Unity, which made the 2018 spaceflight and another in February 2019 that carried a third company crew member, but these are all test flights. Commercial flights have yet to begin. Virgin Galactic says it has 600 people on the waiting list.

Virgin Galactic attempted its third spaceflight in December 2020, but the mission aborted when the engine failed to ignite because of an onboard computer connection problem caused by electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Today’s flight appeared to go perfectly. VSS Unity is carried aloft by Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve, which releases the spaceship and returns to the spaceport. VSS Unity fires its rocket motor for the rest of the trip to space and then glides back to the landing strip.

Virgin Galactic pilot CJ Sturckow. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, VSS Unity reached a speed of Mach 3 and an altitude of 55.45 miles (89.24 kilometers).

Sturckow is a former NASA astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions that launched from Florida.  He also piloted VSS Unity on the 2018 flight from its previous home at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Today, on his sixth spaceflight, he became the first person to travel into space from three different states.

The company said today’s flight achieved three objectives: carrying revenue-generating scientific research for NASA, collecting data that will be used for the final two verification reports required by the FAA, and testing upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls and validating EMI reductions.

Virgin Galactic is now working on a new design, SpaceShipThree, with two spacecraft in development, VSS Imagine and VSS Inspire.  They will have improved performance in terms of maintenance and flight rate, as well as a mirrored finish “constantly changing color and appearance as it travels from earth to sky to space.”

VSS Unity may be the first human spacecraft to launch into space from New Mexico, but it is not the first to land there. NASA maintained a backup landing site for the space shuttle at White Sands, NM. The third space shuttle mission, STS-3, landed there when flooding at its primary landing site, Edwards Air Force Base, CA, forced a change in plans.

Virgin Galactic did not provide live coverage of today’s flight, but Jack Beyer of the commercial website was nearby with his camera and provided amazing views.

Virgin Galactic tweeted videos after the mission was over.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business. In a statement, the FAA noted this is the 400th licensed commercial orbital or suborbital launch. The first, in 1989, also was in New Mexico — the launch of Space Services’ suborbital Starfire rocket.

The number of U.S. commercial launches has varied widely over the years. In 2011 it dropped to just one, but in 2020 the FAA licensed 39. SpaceX is widely credited with bringing the commercial space launch business back to the United States with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket and other companies are following suit.

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