Virgin Galactic’s hopes of starting space tourism got refueled this Thursday when its rocket-powered space plane named VSS Unity took off in California’s Mojave Desert, attached to Virgin’s jet-powered cargo craft, WhiteKnightTwo; almost three and a half years after the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo in 2014.
During Thursday’s space flight, VSS Unity reached a high enough altitude to separate and fire its engine; reached the speed of light for a moment; then slowed down and turned around for its glide back to the ground.
“Virgin Galactic back on track. Successful powered flight, Mach 1.6. Data review to come, then on to the next flight. Space feels tantalizingly close now,” tweeted an ecstatic Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Galactic, after the brief flight.
While the space plane has been undergoing other tests and has completed glide flights in recent months, this is the first time it has utilized its rocket motors after the fatal crash of 2014.
Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, wishes to be able to provide tourists with suborbital space flights at a price of a quarter of a million dollars as soon as possible; but it is already a decade behind schedule. In the meantime, the company has been facing competition from Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, as well as Elon Musk’s Space X, which has discussed using its rockets to launch tourists around the moon and perhaps around the world on super-fast international flights via space.