Most people think of astronauts as humans dressed in bulky suits flying onboard rockets hurtling into the vast expanse of outer space. Virgin Galactic, however, wants to change that conception and make every human a potential astronaut. At least, every human who can afford one of its super-expensive space flights. First, however, it needs to actually prove to everyone, especially authorities, that it can safely carry humans above a certain altitude. Its third-ever test flight last Saturday took it one step closer to that goal while also achieving a first for space science and travel.
Virgin Galactic’s vision really turns the common ideas about space flight on their heads. Rather than blasting off in rockets, the company’s Space Plane’s take off from runways just like regular planes. They don’t also fly too far away from the Earth but, fortunately, the US considers anyone flying above 80 kilometers from the Earth’s surface to be an astronaut.
That’s exactly what happened on May 22 when the VMS Eve launch craft flew up to 44,000 feet (13.4 kilometers) before the real spacecraft, the VSS Unity, detached and fired its rocket engines. The spacecraft, which can carry six passengers and two pilots, reach an altitude of 293,000 feet, roughly 89 kilometers, before it glided safely down the same runway its carrier took off. The VSS Unity was piloted by Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow, the latter of whom is the first person to have flown to space from three different states.
That achievement, however, was also due to one historic milestone for this test flight. This is the first time that Virgin Galactic launched its spacecraft from its new HQ at Spaceport America in New Mexico. This, in turn, is the first space launch from New Mexico, which makes it the third state in the US to launch humans into space.
Although an important milestone, it is just but a small step towards the company’s end goal. Virgin Galactic still has to make four other test flights that will see passengers, including Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, inside the spacecraft. Curiously, this recent test flight also lists “revenue-generating scientific research experiments” from NASA as part of its objectives, something which will probably be explained more in its next financial report.