Billionaire Richard Branson is back in the space race.
Virgin Galactic, owned by Branson, completed what is expected to be its final test flight Thursday before taking paying customers on brief trips to space.
The company’s twin-fuselage VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America site in New Mexico around 11:15am ET with a crew of four company employees.
The VSS Unity spaceplane hung 54.2 miles above Earth’s surface for three minutes, allowing the space tourists to experience weightlessness for the first time.
Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s maiden flight in 2021 led to an investigation when it veered off course during its descent back to the runway in the New Mexico desert.
The VSS Unity spaceplane hung 54.2 miles above Earth’s surface for three minutes, allowing the space tourists to experience weightlessness for the first time
The four-person crew, all Virgin Galactic staff, spent three minutes in weightlessness.
Unlike other companies that use vertical-launch rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a carrier aircraft with two pilots who take off from a runway, gain high altitude, and drop a rocket-powered plane that soars into space before gliding back to Earth.
The carrier plane launched with the spacecraft under its belly, which it then released at an altitude of 44,500 feet.
VSS Unity then fired its engine and climbed about 262,000 feet – the altitude recognized as the edge of space.
‘Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!’ Virgin Galactic tweeted Thursday.
The total journey time was 90 minutes, with passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in the space plane’s cabin before returning to Earth at 12:37 pm ET.
The company’s Unity 25 mission is a crucial final test flight before it flies its first commercial mission in late June, hoping to carry out a trip roughly every month after that.
The flight comes 22 months after billionaire Branson and employees rode to the edge of space aboard its centerpiece SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.
Virgin Galactic had hoped that a high-profile mission would open the door to routine flights soon after but experienced a mishap when landing that kept the company grounded until Thursday.
The four people that went to space Thursday work for Virgin Galactic
The carrier plane launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico, carrying the spaceplane under its belly that was then released at an altitude of 44,500 feet
In September 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it was investigating a deviation in the descent of the flight.
The FAA, which oversees commercial air and spaceflight in the US, found the spaceplane ‘deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance’ and did so for about a minute and 41 seconds.
At the time, all seemed to go as planned, with the mothership taking off as expected and the spaceplane being released at 50,000ft to continue its 40-mile journey to space before safely gliding back to land on a runway at Spaceport America.
However, a report suggests that in the cockpit, there were warning lights that the spacecraft was veering off course and could struggle on its return without action.
Virgin Galactic said ‘the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan’ but added it ‘did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.’
The firm says it is working with the FAA on its investigation of the deviation in the return route to land on the runway and improving communications.
The crew experienced amazing views of Earth while in the spaceplane
Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s maiden flight in 2021 led to an investigation when it veered off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert.
In a statement on the FAA investigation, Virgin Galactic acknowledged that ‘the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace’, but confirmed this was ‘for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace. ‘
Virgin Galactic said: ‘When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.’
It added that ‘at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public.’
The company said it is “working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights,” including alerting them of any issues.
The agency barred Virgin Galactic from taking off until it could rectify the issues and finally received federal approval for Thursday’s spaceflight.
Next will come customers who purchased tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness.
About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.