Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism company backed by Richard Branson, sent three people to space in a test flight that brings the company closer to its long-awaited entry into regular service.
Two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, directed the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to an altitude of 90 kilometers (56 miles) over the Mojave desert after it was released from its carrier plane at about 45,0000 ft. up.
In the cabin, Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor, took the first ride as a passenger.
The spacecraft spent a few minutes in microgravity at the apogee of its flight, where NASA research payloads were able to perform brief experiments and gather data, helping generate revenue for the company.
With Moses in the cabin, the flight also began proving out the safety, comfort, and enjoyment of passengers. The weight carried on this flight is within 100 lbs. of the expected weight with a full complement of passengers.
The company has been testing out passenger mechanics with flights in parabolic airplanes that generate 20 to 30 seconds of time in microgravity. Passengers will be able to leave their seats to float, and then buckle back in for the descent and glide back to earth.
There will still be more flight tests to come as the company works to expand the safe performance parameters of the vehicle and identify the best techniques to fly the spaceplane. This flight, for instance, tested out a slightly different center-of-gravity, something to be expected when passengers of different sizes eventually board the craft. The company also began testing interior cabin fittings for safety and comfort on this flight.
When the company is satisfied with the vehicle’s safety and performance, the plan is to move the company’s operations to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic has hundreds of passengers who have put down deposits, including celebrities like Lady Gaga and Leonardo DiCaprio, and it needs to start earning revenue.
Branson told AFP earlier this month that he is spending $35 million a month on Virgin Galactic and that he hopes to see the test program completed by July.