Richard Branson’s space tourism venture finally accomplished what it has been trying to do since 2004: Send an aircraft to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic successfully conducted a crewed test flight of its SpaceShipTwo, aka VSS Unity, its suborbital spaceplane Thursday. This is a major stride toward extending its futuristic service to paying customers. You can check out some of the footage it captured in the video above.
Two pilots fired the VSS Unity’s rocket motors for one minute, longer than ever before to take the vessel exactly 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) above the Mojave Desert. That’s just above the United States Air Force’s 50-mile space boundary, meaning Virgin Galactic has beat SpaceX to crewed space travel. The spaceplane was released from its carrier aircraft — WhiteKnightTwo — at roughly 10:35 a.m. Eastern and reached a peak speed of Mach 2.9, or about 2.9 times the speed of sound (2,225 mph). In a statement to Inverse, Branson said Virgin Galactic will be further pushing its VSS Unity to new heights in the future.
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos,” he said.
Thursday’s test flight was a massive comeback for Virgin Galactic after the fatal 2014 crash of the VSS Enterprise that killed one of the pilots aboard. Seeing the VSS Unity soar through the mesosphere provides renewed hope that the company could make good on its promise to kickstart a lucrative space tourism industry. The company claims it has already sold $250,000 tickets aboard the spaceplane.
VSS Unity has now flown a total of four times, with this flight being its most ambitious to date. Branson made it clear that he plans on continuing to test the craft’s limits but has yet to lay out a timeline as to when its next test will be or when Virgin Galactic will begin large-scale tourist flights.
It’s taken 14 years, but a space enthusiasts might soon be able to soar above the clouds at over 2,000 mph.