Virgin Galactic flies final test before opening for business

$450k buys you about 90 minutes of space adventure and a sub-orbital glimpse of Earth

Virgin Galactic successfully launched a crewed suborbital test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft on Thursday – a mission billed as the final milestone before officially opening up for space tourism.

At 0915 Mountain Time (1515 UTC), the VMS Eve mothership took off from New Mexico's Spaceport America, carrying its spacecraft to an altitude of 44,500 feet (over 13.5km). Pilots on VSS Unity, which rides along with VMS Eve, then fired its rockets to take its six passengers even higher – to 54.2 miles (over 87.2km) at nearly three times the speed of sound.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which the crew could gawp at Earth's totally not flat surface from suborbital space, the craft descended and landed back safely at 1037 MT (1647 UTC).

The entire crew consisted of Virgin Galactic employees. Pilot Nicola Pecile and commander Jameel Janjua flew VMS Eve, whilst Unity's crew was another pilot and commander pair – CJ Sturckow and Mike Masucci – plus astronaut instructors Beth Moses and Luke Mays, and mission specialists Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert.

CEO Michael Colglazier said the latest flight – the 25th test conducted by Richard Branson's space tourism venture – was the last before Virgin Galactic opens for business next month.

"The 'Unity 25' mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic," the CEO beamed in a statement. "Witnessing our inspiring crew's pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers. Our teams now begin post-flight analysis as well as preparation for 'Galactic 01', our commercial research mission, planned for late June."

Galactic 01 will carry three amateur astronauts from the Italian Air Force studying the effects of microgravity on the body and brain.

Tickets for a seat on the VSS Unity spacecraft aren't cheap. Space fans hoping to experience brief weightlessness and a taste of space will have to fill out an application form, and fork over $10,000 upfront just to get Virgin Galactic to consider them for a ticket. The lucky few should expect to pay a total of $450,000 for a ride aboard the VSS Unity.

Virgin Galactic is not Branson's first aerospace venture. His other one – Virgin Orbit, a satellite-launching startup – hasn't been as successful and shuttered this week after having sold all of its assets following a failed flight attempt in January. ®

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