After a few stumbles, Virgin Galactic has succeeded in its third test flight of its new spaceplane, which will be available for space tourism flights in the future.
The VSS Unity, one of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo models, launched from Spaceport American in New Mexico on Saturday, May 22. VSS Unity is carried to altitude by a mothership, VMS Eve, from which it was released and hit a speed of Mach 3. Piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, Unity reached an altitude of 55.45 miles, then glided down back to Earth and landed on a runaway at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic shared a video, showing the Unity being released from the mothership and gaining altitude, and you can see it gliding along at the very edge of space:
This was the first time that crewed spaceflight has taken off from this spaceport. “Fifteen years ago, New Mexico embarked on a journey to create the world’s first commercial spaceport,’’ said Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson. ‘’Today, we launched the first human spaceflight from that very same place, marking an important milestone for both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico. I am proud of the team for their hard work and grateful to the people of New Mexico who have been unwavering in their commitment to commercial spaceflight from day one. Their belief and support have made today’s historic achievement possible.”
The previous test flight of the VSS Unity, in December last year, failed to reach space when the engines cut out during the flight. No one was injured and the vehicle landed safely, but the incident raised concerns about the safety of passengers — particularly as this is to be a space tourism vehicle.
There is also a surprising debate over whether reaching this altitude actually counts as a space flight. One of the most common definitions used for the boundary between our planet’s atmosphere and outer space is the Kármán line, defined as 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level. However, the U.S. Air Force and NASA use a different definition of the start of space of 50 miles above sea level. These boundaries are both rather arbitrary as there is no clear delineation between the outer atmosphere and space.
So whether people who fly in a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo have actually been to space depends on who you ask. The highest altitude this spaceplane has reached is 56 miles in February 2019, which is between the two definitions. That’s why you’ll see some people refer to Virgin Galactic’s planes as traveling into space, and others saying they come close to the boundary of space.