After its first spaceflight in December, Virgin Galactic sent the same vessel past the edge of the atmosphere for a second time on Friday. This time, the rocket plane went higher and faster than before — and it had three crew members on board instead of two.
The flight marked another step forward in a new kind of space race — one that aims to allow private citizens (who can afford the ticket) an opportunity to exit our atmosphere.
It was the company’s fifth supersonic-powered test flight, and it reached an altitude of nearly 56 miles before returning safely to the Mojave Desert runway in California where it took off. Beth Moses, an astronaut trainer and microgravity research expert, was in the cabin as the company’s first test passenger in space.
The SpaceShipTwo craft, a suborbital, rocket-fueled space plane called the VSS Unity, lifted off shortly after 8 a.m. local time. It was carried aloft under a larger carrier plane for nearly an hour and then released. Next, its rocket ignited to propel the vessel, and its three crew members, up to where the sky turned black.
Unity reached Mach 3 — three times the speed of sound — before the rocket motor was switched off shortly before 9 a.m. Then the vessel coasted to its highest altitude of 55.87 miles above sea level. Two tail booms rotated into a “feathered” position to create drag, allowing the vessel to fall gently back into the atmosphere and, ultimately, glide toward the runway.
George T. Whitesides, the chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said the research conducted on the flight focused not only on the vessel’s trajectory, but also on the passenger experience.
It went smoothly, he said. “The pilots did a great job.”
The flight was a success for Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started Virgin Galactic in 2004. (Other billionaires funding private spaceflight projects include Elon Musk, who runs SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, who is behind Blue Origin.)
“Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves,” Mr. Branson said in a statement on Friday.
Ms. Moses’ job was to evaluate how passengers might experience a trip in the cabin. She observed the light, the temperature and the feeling of moving around in zero gravity. In an interview after the flight, she said it felt comfortable, and the view was beautiful.
“It was intense and magical and serene and almost unlike anything anyone can imagine,” she said. “The earth below was super clear and bright, with a beautiful blue Pacific Ocean and snow on the mountaintops.”
Ventures like these are more useful for testing the limits of tourism than for advancing scientific research, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said the Virgin flights could be used to conduct microgravity tests or equipment checks.
“But at this stage, from a scientist’s point of view, it’s equivalent to what we call a sounding rocket,” he said. “And we’ve been doing those since the 1940s.”
Sounding rockets are vessels that were sent by NASA to the upper reaches of the atmosphere to collect data and test instruments starting in 1945 — an important precursor to more advanced space travel.
NASA did participate in Friday’s flight via its Flight Opportunities program, which pays Virgin Galactic for space to conduct research inside the Unity during its trip.
And the three people on board — two pilots, David Mackay and Michael Masucci, and Ms. Moses — got the vantage point of a lifetime.
In an interview after the flight, Mr. Mackay commented on how quickly the sky turned black once the atmosphere faded, and Mr. Masucci said he was astonished by the sight of a very bright moon. They said the flight was amazing, but not frightening.
“If you’re fully prepared, you don’t feel scared,” Mr. Mackay said.
There is some room for debate as to whether Virgin Galactic has actually sent people into space. On both of its space trips — the vessel reached an altitude of 51.4 miles last time — the Unity flew higher than the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of where space begins, but lower than another widely accepted boundary between Earth and space, called the Kármán Line, which is about 62 miles above sea level.
In any case, Unity has flown high enough that the pilots saw a black sky above them and a blue-brown Earth below as they crested at the edge of the atmosphere. (Dr. McDowell is skeptical about the Kármán Line and thinks it is fair to say that Unity reached proper space on both of its recent trips.)
Unity was the first Virgin Galactic craft to reach space, but it was not the first private spacecraft to get there. Another ship, operated by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which later licensed its technology to Mr. Branson, soared to an altitude of 69.7 miles about 15 years ago.
At the time, people predicted that it was the dawn of a new age of commercial human spaceflight. But the enthusiasm faded as years passed. Some non-astronauts were flown to the International Space Station, but commercial flights did not come to fruition. Then came a tragic setback: the fatal crash of a previous SpaceShipTwo craft in 2014. One pilot was killed after he released the lock on the booms too early and the vessel fell apart, investigators found.
Virgin Galactic is expected to keep doing test flights and making improvements in terms of safety, altitude and weight capacity. It is still unclear when private citizens — including the more than 600 who have already bought tickets — will be allowed to take a ride.
“It’s definitely not a decade,” Mr. Whitesides said. “We are really getting pretty close.”