The spacecraft SpaceShipTwo Unity successfully performed the first test flight

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 Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft - owned by Sir Richard Branson - performed the first of three test flights that should allow it to enter commercial service. The Unity vehicle, piloted by Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow, was powered at an altitude of 89 km (55 miles) and then glided back to Earth.

Sir Richard has around 600 paying customers - including movie and music stars - waiting to make the same journey. They will have the chance to make this space trip only after Unity receives the license, which is expected to happen by the end of the year. The licensing process is the responsibility of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will now receive operational and performance data following Saturday's test flight over the New Mexico desert.

The spacecraft SpaceShipTwo Unity successfully performed the first test flight.

The aircraft was transported at an altitude of 13 km (44.000 ft) by the "mother" plane, Eve, before being released, for the aircraft to be tested. The vehicle then climbed rapidly to the edge of space, reaching a speed three times that of sound (Mach 3) along the way. It was the sixth time Unity had made an electrical ascent in the five-year testing program.

The next flight should have four passengers on board, Virgin Galactic employees, to get an experience that future ticket customers will enjoy. The identity of this quartet has not yet been revealed, even within the company. The last test flight, the third, will have Sir Richard on board.

It has been a long road for Virgin Galactic engineers, with progress over the past year being hampered in part by the Covid crisis. CEO Michael Colglazie said the project is now on track, especially with regard to FAA licensing. "It was such a perfect flight. We'll take the data off the ship and give it to the FAA. This will be the teaching of our homework. We believe that we have now collected everything we need for the last points in the process of obtaining the commercial flight license ", he explained.

In addition to Sir Richard's approach, there are projects from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, but also from Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

The transition to commercial service may not come soon enough. Space tourism is a sector that is re-emerging after a decade of hiatus and is about to become very competitive. During the 2000s, seven wealthy individuals paid to visit the International Space Station (ISS). This adventurism, organized under the auspices of the Russian space agency, ceased in 2009. Now, new initiatives abound.

The Russians do not give up and want to relaunch commercial flights to the ISS. There are even those who want to launch private space stations for people to visit. Among them is Axiom, a company founded by a former ISA NASA program manager.

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