Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship successfully shot into space Saturday morning from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
The milestone puts the company’s test-flight program back on track after its last attempt to reach space, in December, failed because of a glitch in the rocket’s onboard computer.
Saturday’s flight, however, took place without a hitch.
The mother ship VMS Eve took off from the spaceport runway about 8:30 a.m., with the Unity attached to its underbelly. About an hour later – after the craft reached about 44,000 feet and the pilots in both vehicles completed final flight checks – the Unity broke away from the mother ship and fired up its rocket motors to shoot into space at three times the speed of sound.
The Unity climbed to about 55 miles above Earth to reach suborbit and then turned around to glide safely back down to the spaceport runway.
It’s the first time the Unity has successfully reached space from New Mexico, after flying to suborbit two times before from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California in December 2018 and February 2019.
Saturday’s flight makes New Mexico only the third U.S. state to send humans into space, after Florida and California, said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who observed the event at the spaceport.
“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Our state’s scientific legacy has been honored by this important achievement, one that took guts and faith and an unwavering belief in what New Mexico can achieve – and indeed is destined to achieve. I can’t wait to see what comes next.”
The company said it will now conduct a review of all test data gathered and thoroughly inspect the spaceship and mother ship. Once the team confirms the results, Virgin Galactic will proceed with its next test-flight plans, which include a second test flight with a full company crew in the passenger cabin, followed by a third flight over the summer with company founder Sir Richard Branson onboard.
Branson’s flight will mark a turning point, paving the way for the company to begin commercial operations with paying passengers. That won’t actually happen until early 2022, because the company has scheduled a four-month maintenance interlude in the fall for upgrades and routine work on Eve and the Unity rocket.
It will, however, fly a four-member passenger crew from the Italian Air Force to space in early fall for experiments in microgravity and future astronaut training.
Virgin Galactic pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay operated Unity’s Saturday flight, the same two-man crew that flew the spaceship in December. Sturckow, who was chief pilot on Saturday, is now the first person ever to have flown to space from three states.
The crew experienced extraordinary views of the bright, blue-rimmed curvature of the Earth against the blackness of space, with White Sands National Park sparkling below – things paying passengers will see when commercial flights begin, the company said.
“It was glorious, elegant and incredibly thrilling,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told the Journal. “We watched the rocket initially go straight up into space from New Mexico and then turn around to come back down. We’ve been working hard, diligently planning, and taking the time to do it right, and we’re now looking forward to the next milestones.”
Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson – who initiated the state’s partnership with Virgin Galactic as the spaceport’s anchor tenant with a handshake in the desert 15 years ago – were both on-site for Saturday’s event.
Branson called the occasion an “absolute delight,” for him and for the extensive team of Virgin Galactic engineers and other employees who attended the launch.
“Thank you to New Mexico,” Branson told the Journal. “You took a gamble and funded the spaceport, and we will pay you back. You will get complete dividends on this investment, and I hope New Mexico will now be famous for human spaceflight.”
Richardson said New Mexico’s gamble is starting to pay off.
“It started with a handshake with Sir Richard Branson,” Richardson told the Journal. “He’s a visionary. … I’m very happy that this is finally happening.”
Saturday’s flight filled a number of test objectives, the company said. That includes carrying scientific research experiments onboard as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, collecting the data needed to compile the final two verification reports to receive a commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration, and testing upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls on the Unity.
It also allowed the company to validate its engineering efforts since February to reduce electromagnetic interference when the Unity is flying. That interference caused the rocket’s onboard computer to reboot during the December test flight. That triggered a safety mechanism that automatically shut down Unity’s rocket motors after it broke away from Eve, forcing the pilots to abort the spaceflight and glide back down to Earth.
That set the flight-test program back by about three months. But the company reported in early May that upgrades had reduced electromagnetic interference to a minimum, paving the way for Saturday’s flight.
Lujan Grisham was upbeat about the future after Unity’s smooth trip to space.
“I’m proud of all the people who have invested everything in this,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal. “They’re putting our state in the astronaut driver’s seat. I’m expecting New Mexico to lead the globe in space tourism and commercial spaceflight from right here at the spaceport.”