SS2 Unity flight two
Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, during a powered test flight. Credit: & Trumbull Studios

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane performed a successful test flight May 29, bringing the company one step closer to realizing its long-delayed dreams of space tourism and research flights.

VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo built for Virgin Galactic, took off attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at about 11:40 a.m. Eastern from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. About an hour later, SpaceShipTwo separated from WhiteKnightTwo and fired its hybrid rocket motor for 31 seconds.

The vehicle reached a top speed of Mach 1.9 and altitude of 34,900 meters on the flight, both records for the SpaceShipTwo test flight program. The spaceplane glided to a runway landing in Mojave about 10 minutes later.

The flight was the second powered test of VSS Unity, after its first flight April 5. The first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke up during its fourth powered test in October 2014, killing the vehicle’s co-pilot and injuring the pilot.

A key difference in this test from the previous one, the company said in a post-flight statement, was a shift of the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward by adding passenger seats and other equipment in the main cabin. That was intended to more closely simulate the conditions of an operational flight, when the vehicle will carry up to six people in addition to the two pilots.

Among those who witnessed the flight was Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson. “It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” he said in a statement. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”

Branson, in a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, said he expected to fly on SpaceShipTwo in the next year. “I think over the next 12 months I hope to become an astronaut, and I think we’ve got a very exciting time ahead,” he said, adding he was undergoing additional physical training to prepare for the flight.

Branson acknowledged in that interview competition with Blue Origin, which has flown its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on a series of test flights, most recently April 29. Unlike Virgin Galactic, which started selling SpaceShipTwo tickets more than a decade ago, Blue Origin has not started selling tickets for New Shepard flights or even announced a ticket price.

“We don’t know the ticket price yet. We haven’t decided,” Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Blue Origin, said May 25 during an on-stage interview at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. He didn’t give a timeframe for starting commercial flights, but said he expected New Shepard to fly frequently, building up experience for the BE-3 engine that powers the vehicle and will also be used on the upper stage of the company’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle.

“I think we’re both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first, and I think we’re talking about months away, not years away, so it’s close,” Branson said of Virgin’s competition with Blue Origin in his BBC interview. “Ultimately, we’ve got to do it in a safe way. I think both of us will have people into space within 12 months.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...