Virgin Galactic spacecraft performs the first powered flight since fatal 2014 crash


SpaceShipTwo's other spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, was instead built by Scaled Composites, but it crashed in a test flight in October 2014, killing one of its pilots and seriously injuring another.

"We applaud Virgin Galactic for its extensive work readying its spacecraft, and we look forward to its achievement within the commercial space and space tourism industry", the State of Florida's aerospace development branch stated.

The VSS Unity is the first ship built from the ground up by Virgin Galactic's sister company, The Spaceship Company. But today, pilots Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay fired Unity's engines and continued skyward.

The VMS Eve crew consisted of pilots Mike "Sooch" Masucci and Nicola Pecile, who piloted the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft which ferried VSS Unity test article aloft.

At a launch altitude of around 46,500ft Eve released Unity, whose hybrid (nitrous oxide/rubber compound) rocket motor was then initiated. The spaceship climbed steeply and went supersonic - Mach 1.87 - during the 30-second rocket burn.

Unity only reaches heights of about 80 km, but it's still enough to very easily view our planet's curvature. The company has not revealed how many more test flights are planned, or when tourist flights are likely to begin. At around 50,000ft, the tail-booms were lowered again before Unity glided to a runway landing.

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This was the first time Unity has achieved supersonic flight.

The VSS Unity rocket plane incorporates safety measures to prevent pilots from prematurely unlocking the feathering mechanism, which apparently functioned as intended Thursday. The propulsion system was not a factor in the accident.

That flight reached just over a quarter of the altitude Virgin Galactic promised paying passengers. Unity, which "incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident", according to a press release, is much heavier and is not created to reach quite those heights.

The tail booms are known as "feathers" because their function is likened to the feathers of a badminton shuttlecock.

The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance, which our engineers will be reviewing.