SpaceShipTwo Flies to Highest Altitude with 3 People Aboard

VSS Unity deploys its feather during reentry. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

MOJAVE, Calif., 22 Feb 2018 (Virgin Galactic PR) — Today, Virgin Galactic conducted its fifth powered test flight and second space flight of its commercial SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity.

In its fifth supersonic rocket powered test flight, Virgin Galactic reached space for the second time today in the skies above Mojave CA. Spaceship VSS Unity reached its highest speed and altitude to date and, for the first time, carried a third crew member on board along with research payloads from the NASA Flight Opportunities program.

This space flight means Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot Michael “Sooch” Masucci become commercial astronauts and the 569th and 570th humans in space. Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor, flew as the third crew member in a first, live evaluation of cabin dynamics. She is the 571st person to fly to space and the first woman to fly on board a commercial spaceship.

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In addition to this element of envelope expansion, VSS Unity flew higher and faster than ever before, as its world record-holding hybrid rocket motor propelled the spaceship at Mach 3.04 to an apogee of 295,007ft.

The crew enjoyed extraordinary views of Earth from the black skies of space and, during several minutes of weightlessness while the pilots “feathered” the spaceship in preparation for a Mach 2.7 re-entry, Beth floated free to complete a number of cabin evaluation test points. The human validation of data previously collected via sensors, and the live testing of other physical elements of the cabin interior, are fundamental to the provision of a safe but enjoyable customer experience.

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity in flight on Feb. 22, 2019. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The glide back home was followed by a smooth runway landing and a rapturous reception from the crowd on the flight line, which included staff and some of Virgin Galactic’s 600 Future Astronaut customers.

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, a born and bred Scotsman as well as an ex-RAF test pilot and Virgin Atlantic Captain, led his crew of newly qualified astronauts from VSS Unity accompanied by a kilted piper.

Today’s flight notched several additional firsts for the industry: The flight was the first time that a non-pilot flew on board a commercial spaceship to space, and it was the first time that a crew member floated freely without restraints in weightlessness in space onboard a commercial spaceship; it was the first time that three people flew to space on a commercial spaceship, and Dave Mackay became the first Scottish-born astronaut (Brian Binnie, who was raised in Scotland, flew to space in 2004).

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Addressing colleagues and guests Dave said: “Beth, Sooch and I just enjoyed a pretty amazing flight which was beyond anything any of us has ever experienced. It was thrilling yet smooth and nicely controlled throughout with a view at the top, of the Earth from space, which exceeded all our expectations. I am incredibly proud of my crew and of the amazing teams at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company for providing a vehicle and an operation which means we can fly confidently and safely. For the three of us today this was the fulfillment of lifelong ambitions, but paradoxically is also just the beginning of an adventure which we can’t wait to share with thousands of others.”

Sir Richard Branson said: “Flying the same vehicle safely to space and back twice in a little over two months, while at the same time expanding the flight envelope, is testament to the unique capability we have built up within the Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company organizations. I am immensely proud of everyone involved. 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. The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet.”

  • Merisea

    *squints* Pretty good. Needs about 9.1 additional km height.

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    This was a great test flight, congratulations to all involved. Adding a third soul on board and adding 7.2 km to apogee in about a 2 month flight cadence is an achievement to be proud of. I have no shortage of VG snark, but today is their day. Enjoy your weekend 😉

  • Steve Pemberton

    Some people seem to feel that if VG never quite reaches 100 km that will be a deal breaker for potential customers. Personally I don’t think that will be the case, but we’ll have to wait and see. I think it will be interesting when both companies are operating to see which one will get a larger number of customers.

    I think only a percentage of potential customers will be influenced by which of the two standards is used to measure the flights, there are other differences that might make more of a difference to people. Price of course is one of them, but we don’t know yet if there will be much of a difference in price. I also think that some people will feel safer in a spaceplane than a capsule. I am not saying that it is safer, I might even argue the opposite, but we live in a world where people feel safer in their cars than on an airliner so logic doesn’t always prevail.

    Also Branson, never a shy one for publicity, is a bit more well known to the public than Bezos so some people may feel more comfortable going with him (again I am talking emotion not logic). And I haven’t heard it mentioned lately but there had been talk of allowing friends and family to ride along in WhiteKnightTwo during the deployment, which would be an added attraction.

    Also the New Shepard flight will happen very fast, perhaps inducing a bit of sensory overload and a “Did that really happen?” feeling when it is over. Whereas on SpaceShipTwo you get the long climb to altitude, not that that in itself is particularly exciting but it helps build the anticipation. Then after weightlessness a very long glide at very high altitude which will give additional great views as well as time to soak the whole experience in. Also SpaceShipTwo has the possibility to eventually launch from any number of scenic and already popular locales (Hawaii for example) whereas New Shepard will likely be more limited geographically.

    SpaceShipTwo may eventually reach the Karman line but most likely New Shepard will always fly quite a bit higher. I am really looking forward to seeing both flying and it will be interesting to see how people “vote with their feet” in their choice of the two amazing experiences.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Congrats to the VG team. Best of success in executing your backlog.

  • The VG hybrid motor has way fewer moving parts and is, seems to me, inherently less volatile than a liquid-fueled rocket.
    In addition to a longer, piloted experience, I like how VG turns and offers views *down* at Earth, rather than just out to the side.

  • redneck

    Try refueling the hybrid with a hose.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I dont think the height will matter

  • therealdmt

    I’m gonna date myself, but when I was growing up, 50 miles was the official designation and that’s always seemed right to me. However, I do have to admit that after all these years of “Karman Line” talk, which I don’t even agree with, it has affected me. It seems that I somehow feel it should be 100 kilometers, which is crazy, as I don’t even care about, and actively somewhat dislike kilometers as a unit of measure! But the lure of that even “100” has psychological power…

    As a practical matter, I don’t have the cash, and if I did, I’d go with Virgin for the gentle landing — my back just ain’t up for that touchdown I saw in the New Shepard video.

    But what I really want, and would consider finding the cash for, is a trip to orbit for the same money (preferably with an airplane-like touchdown). Unfortunately, such doesn’t seem to be in the cards anytime soon.

    Anyway, Congrats to Virgin and to all its beyond patient deposit holding customers. Cool stuff

  • ThomasLMatula

    Probably it is just as easy to refuel as with a solid fuel motor…

  • Paul451

    I’m gonna date myself, but when I was growing up, 50 miles was the official designation and that’s always seemed right to me.

    The 50mile and 100km designations were both created at same the time, ie, both existed when you were growing up.

    But pedantically, the “official” designation was always the FAI one, since they had traditionally set all “official” benchmarks for aviation (which suborbital spaceflight was considered an extension of.) The USAF chose 50 miles in order to give the X-plane pilots astronaut “wings”. NASA “officially” uses the same value, but has never given astronaut wings to anyone who’s gone below 100km, because they’ve never launched astronauts below 100km.

    But neither value had any kind of high moral (or scientific) ground. Both were chosen as the nearest round number in metric or imperial in the actual range (not line) of the Mesopause (85-100km).

    Personally I prefer the FAI number because it feels like a lot of people pushing for 50 miles are doing to because “FrEeDoM uNiTs!!1!” and then trying to find a reason to justify it post hoc.

    What’s weirder about the US value (50 miles) is that all US organisations involved (USAF/NASA) use nautical miles, not statute miles, for everything else. 50 NM would be 92km, which is bang in the middle of the Mesopause range.

    As a practical matter, I don’t have the cash,

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    So how high did it climb in standard units (kilometres)?

    Andy yes, pity they are not recognized as astronauts (Karman line remained untouched).

  • redneck

    right, I had forgotten the standard HTPB pumps.