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Virgin Galactic rocket climbs to edge of space in key test for tourist service

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Virgin Galactic has completed a successful test in the race to offer passenger flights into space. The company flew a manned rocket 55 miles (89km) above the Earth from a new base in New Mexico on Saturday.

Sir Richard Branson shared a video of himself on social media watching the flight, and wrote: “Delighted to be on the flightline to Virgin Galactic’s first human spaceflight from the majestic Spaceport America.”

The company is in competition with Blue Origin, backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who are also trying to market commercial space flights.

Blue Origin aims to launch its first passenger flight in July. It recently auctioned off berths in its six-man vessel, with offers for a seat as high as $2.8m.

Virgin Galactic’s Unity SpaceShipTwo craft lifted off from the desert location, 50 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, at 10.35am. It can travel at speeds of 2,300 miles an hour, more than three times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight (Photo: Virgin Galactic/Handout)

It was launched from a carrier aircraft, the VMS Eve, and was flown by pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay. The company said the flight was Covid secure.

Virgin Galactic is aiming to be approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA will study data from the flight, particularly checking to see if an electronic interference issue which led to an aborted flight in December has been corrected.

Virgin Galactic claims it is on course to fly its first full trip in 2022. Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry have tickets, which cost $250,000.

The company’s next flight is set to be manned by six engineers. Sir Richard himself hopes to fly in a future test.

Virgin Galactic has been beset by problems since Sir Richard founded it in 2004. An accidental explosion in 2007 lead to the death of three engineers, while an accident in 2014 destroyed the ship and killed another pilot.

Saturday’s flight is the first time in more than two years that the company’s rockets have reached space. In that time the company moved from a base in Mojave, California to New Mexico, 100 miles north of the Mexico border.


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