Virgin Galactic completed a successful space trip on Saturday, a sign of progress for the space tourism company founded by Richard Branson following a series of delays in its flight schedule.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity reached an altitude of 89.2 kilometers before returning two pilots to a runway in New Mexico, the company said, marking its first successful flight in two years. The spacecraft also carried NASA-funded research experiments.
Saturday’s launch brought Virgin Galactic closer to its goal of offering commercial spaceflight in 2022, as it competes with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX for business in the emerging market.
“The great thing about this flight is that it was as expected on paper,” said Sir Richard, adding that a new automated system used to increase pilot control was working “perfectly”.
“The spacecraft climbed straight up without any deviation.”
Virgin Galactic has faced several setbacks, including a fatal accident in 2014, on the route to commercial space tourism. This weekend’s launch was originally slated for December, but the company canceled that flight due to an electromagnetic interference issue.
In March, one of Virgin Galactic’s biggest backers, technology investor Chamath Palihapitiya, sold the rest of his personal holdings in the company for around $ 200 million.
Palihapitiya, who still owns shares indirectly through a special purpose acquisition company used to bring Virgin Galactic to the stock exchange, said he continues to support the company’s efforts and will redirect the proceeds. towards climate initiatives.
Virgin Galactic shares have slipped about two-thirds from a high of $ 62.80 in February, giving the company a market cap of $ 5.1 billion. The stock rebounded at the weekend after Virgin Galactic announced Saturday’s test flight.
Virgin Galactic plans to conduct three more test flights before it opens to the public next year, putting it behind Blue Origin in the race to launch civilians into space. Sir Richard is expected to participate in the second of the upcoming launches.
“We think our experience will be the one that people prefer, but obviously we will have some competition,” said Sir Richard. “We think the market is huge there, so none of us will ever be able to build enough spaceships to keep up with the demand.”
Blue Origin recently opened a tender for a passenger seat on its first commercial space flight, drawing a high offer of $ 2.8 million.
The launch, slated for July 20, would be the first commercial flight to cross the Kármán Line, the internationally recognized border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Virgin Galactic’s test flight exceeded the space limit by US standards.
SpaceX became the first private company to put humans into orbit last year. *
A spokesperson said Virgin Galactic received $ 85 million in deposits after selling tickets starting at $ 200,000 for bookings on future flights.
*This story has been edited to clarify that SpaceX was the first company to put humans into orbit, not into space.