Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company has completed its first flight carrying the billionaire, two pilots, and three mission specialists to the fringes of space.
The VSS Unity spaceplane was launched in mid-air after dropping from the belly of its mothership at an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km) before its rocket fires the craft and its crew into sub-orbital space at least 50 miles (80km) above the Earth.
The British entrepreneur announced his plan to reach space nine days before Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is set to launch aboard his own mission. Although there are questions about whether Virgin Galactic‘s maximum altitude of 80km actually qualifies as space.
The mothership took off from the Spaceport America runway in New Mexico approximately an hour later than initially planned due to bad weather on Sunday.
After releasing from the mothership – at approximately 4.25pm UK time – the VSS Unity spaceplane quickly reached its maximum altitude at 53.5 miles (86km) which is below the Karman Line, internationally recognised as the edge of space.
Despite this, the six crew on board experienced a few minutes of microgravity before the rocket motor turned off and the spaceplane began to glide back to Earth.
As part of the return trip, a feathering system slowed and stabilised the craft as it dropped through the atmosphere towards the Earth.
The crew landed just 20 minutes after the spaceplane detached, officially returning to Earth as astronauts according to NASA’s standards, which records the edge of space at 50 miles (80km).
Last December Virgin Galactic aborted a landmark test flight of its rocket-powered space plane, despite everything getting the all-clear a minute before launch.
The Unity 22 mission will be the company’s first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin but will be the 22nd flight test for rocket plane VSS Unity.
Taking off from a spaceport in New Mexico, the crew will be evaluating the “cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers” in the commercial cabin.
Virgin Galactic is expected to complete several more test flights before beginning commercial launches.
Ultimately the company aims to be operating multiple space tourism flights a year, and already has more than 600 customers for the $250,000 (£189,000) seats – including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.