Virgin Galactic completes final flight test before taking paying customers into space

Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight Thursday before taking paying customers on short flights to space, marking what the tour company said was a “delightful success.”

Six employees of the company, including two pilots, arrived at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after a short flight up and down that had a few heavy minutes.

It took about an hour for the main train to lift the plane to an altitude of 13,563 meters (about 44,500 feet), where it was released and fired its rocket engine for the final push.

“Good encouragement, WE’LL GET THERE!” Virgin Galactic tweeted.

It reached an altitude of 87 kilometers before climbing back onto the runway, according to the company.

Jamila Gilbert, who grew up in southern New Mexico and heads the company’s internal communications, was one of those on board to examine how customers pay.

He said that it was difficult for him to explain what happened to him, adding that it would take a lifetime to process the sight and emotions that filled that moment between the rocket fire and the space to reach its climax.

“It was this magnetic pull,” he said in an interview. “When I started looking outside, I felt like I was floating. I could hear voices. But I didn’t stop looking at the world, and I didn’t look away.”

Gilbert looks out the windows as he meets the weights during the flight test. (Virgin Galactic/The Associated Press)

Co-worker Christopher Huie said it seemed like everything stopped when the spacecraft was ejected from the carrier.

“You’re just waiting for the rocket to light up,” said Huie, an aerospace engineer. “And I think that time had a lot of hope, and I would live that time forever.”

Then came a small collision and rocket fire, and the crew was pinned to their seats as the G-forces kicked in.

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Judy Anderson, a retired science professor in Winnipeg, has been planning a trip to space with billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for more than ten years and paid $20,000 for a $200,000 ticket. He says his trip seems closer to reality after Branson’s Sunday visit.

The flight comes nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos completed the flight after nine days from west Texas and Blue Origin has launched several flights.

Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send passengers on short hops and in 2021 it finally got government approval.

The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyze the data from Thursday’s flight and look at the aircraft and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial operations, possibly at the end of June.

Tickets are now $450,000 US

The first commercial flight will include members of the Italian military who will conduct the tests. Then there are the customers who bought tickets years ago for their privilege of being weightless in a winged plane that starts in the belly of the plane.

About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the first class going for $200,000 US each. Tickets now cost $450,000 US per person.

Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will be aiming for 400 flights a year from Spaceport America when it completes construction of its next batch of rocket-powered planes at a facility near Arizona.

After Branson’s visit, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded aircraft as researched a problem that caused the rocket ship to leave as it descended back into the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic insisted at the time that Branson and others were not in any danger.

The company also revamped its carrier and airline fleet. The delay was almost twice as long as expected, possibly due to labor issues and reduced workload.

Exterior of spaceship against dark sky with earth in background
The Earth is seen from the Virgin Galactic rocket plane as it reaches a distance of 87 kilometers. (Virgin Galactic/The Associated Press)

Branson joined a crowd of people watching Thursday’s launch from Spaceport America.

Huie said the company is ready for commercial operations and will expand its fleet in the coming years.

“We want to go higher,” he said, “and the goal is to fill more space stations with more spaceships and women and send hundreds of people every year into space.”

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