SpaceShipTwo flies to the edge of space again

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Updated 4:30 p.m. Eastern with post-flight comments.

WASHINGTON — SpaceShipTwo successfully flew to the edge of space for the second time Feb. 22, carrying three people for the first time as the company moved closer to beginning commercial operations of the suborbital spaceplane.

VSS Unity, as the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle is named, was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at 11:53 a.m. Eastern, about 45 minutes after taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It fired its hybrid rocket engine for roughly one minute, flying to an altitude of 89.9 kilometers and top speed of Mach 3 before gliding back to a runway landing in Mojave at 12:08 p.m. Eastern.

The flight was the first for SpaceShipTwo since the Dec. 13 flight that was the first to pass the 50-mile (80.5-kilometer) altitude above which U.S. government agencies award astronaut wings. The company considers that the boundary of space even though it is below the 100-kilometer Karman Line used by other organizations.

At the controls of SpaceShipTwo were David Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief test pilot, and Mike “Sooch” Masucci, the company’s lead trainer pilot. This flight was the first time that either pilot had been to space.

For the first time in any flight in the SpaceShipTwo test program, the vehicle carried a third person: Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor. “She will provide human validation for the data we collect, including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” the company said in a tweet. The company didn’t disclose she was on the flight until after takeoff.

“Beth, Sooch and I just enjoyed a pretty amazing flight which was beyond anything any of us has ever experienced,” Mackay said in a post-flight statement. “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.”

The vehicle carried four payloads from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which provides suborbital spaceflight access for science and technology demonstration payloads. Three of the four payloads also flew on SpaceShipTwo’s previous flight in December, the first time the vehicle carried experiments for the Flight Opportunities program.

With the experiments and the presence of a third person, Virgin Galactic said SpaceShipTwo was “at close to approximate commercial weight” on this flight. Part of the flight was also shifting the center of gravity of the vehicle to expand its operating envelope in preparation for commercial flights.

“This represents those first steps into what is the next hardest thing about our test program, which is the repeatability of it,” Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said prior to a planned Feb. 20 flight that was scrubbed because of high crosswinds. “We’ve tested it out, we’ve banged the tires a little bit to see what she can do, now we got to go make that box a little bigger so that it flies that way every time.”

Neither Mike Moses nor George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, would say how many more test flights the company plans before beginning commercial service. “We’re still in the heart of the test program,” Moses said, with the number of flights dependent on how long it takes to meet all of the requirements of the overall program.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said after the December flight that as few as three more flights would be needed before operations shift to Spaceport America in New Mexico. He subsequently said he anticipates being on the first commercial flight of the vehicle this summer, perhaps around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July.

Debra Werner contributed to this article from Mojave, California.