Virgin Galactic has successfully completed its first all-civilian flight this morning, carrying three civilians and three crew members to space aboard their spaceplane VSS Unity.
Taking off at 8:30 a.m. Mountain Time (15:30 UTC), the mothership, VMS Eve, with VSS Unity attached, began its journey to its drop point over Spaceport America in New Mexico.
VMS Eve climbed in a looping racetrack pattern over the Spaceport to an altitude of 44,300 feet before releasing VSS Unity at 9:17 am MT. Unity then dropped for a few seconds before igniting its rocket engine and beginning its climb to the edge of space. The hybrid rocket, fueled by hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) and nitrous oxide, burned for around 1 minute as it climbed to its apogee of 55 miles (88.5 km) and a top speed of Mach 3.
Shortly after the engine cut off, the crew released their harnesses and began floating around the cabin, taking in the views of Earth and space. The crew was able to float around the cabin of Unity for a few minutes before returning to their seats and beginning the trip back down to Earth to Spaceport America.
The three civilians making their first flights today were:
- Jon Goodwin: The first Olympian to go to space, 2nd person with Parkinson’s, Goodwin, who hails from the United Kingdom, bought his ticket in 2005.
- Keisha Schahaff: Won trip through draw benefitting Space for Humanity and chose her daughter to fly with her, becoming the first Mother and Daughter to go to space together.
- Anastasia Mayers: 2nd youngest person to go to space, along with her Mother, became the first two astronauts from Antigua and Barbuda.
- CJ Sturckow: Commander, former NASA astronaut, flew on the first VSS Unity mission
- Beth Moses: Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Instructor, this was her fourth flight to space and
- Kelly Latimer: Pilot, first female commercial space pilot, first flight to space. This mission also marked the most women to fly on a single mission to space.
While the crew members were floating through the cabin, VSS Unity performed a back flip while the wings transitioned into its feathering position, which helps stabilize the spaceplane at high altitudes as it descends back to Earth. Once Unity is below 53,000 ft, the wings are transitioned to their glide mode, and the pilot brought the spaceplane back for a smooth landing.
For reference, international space starts at the Kármán line, which is 62 miles (100 km) above the mean Sea level, and the United States boundary for space is 50 miles (80 km). It should also be noted that the U.S. no longer gives astronauts wings unless the mission “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety”.
This rule took effect in 2022.
This was the 3rd mission for VSS Unity in just over three months, with its next flight scheduled for September.