SpaceShipTwo in space
SpaceShipTwo near the apogee of its May 22 flight, with the vehicle at the edge of its space and its twin tail booms feathered. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Updated 5:15 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made its first flight to space in more than two years May 22, completing the first in a series of four suborbital flights planned by the company over the next several months.

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity, with pilots CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay on board, took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 10:34 a.m. Eastern, carried aloft by its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The plane released VSS Unity at 11:26 a.m. Eastern, at which time the spaceplane fired its hybrid rocket motor for approximately 60 seconds.

VSS Unity ascended on a suborbital trajectory, achieving a peak altitude of 89.2 kilometers before gliding back to a runway landing at Spaceport America at 11:43 a.m. Eastern. The company did not webcast the flight, providing only updates via social media, although did webcast the successful release and powered ascent of the vehicle. The flight, the first human launch to space from New Mexico, carried payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

60 seconds of rocket burn, straight into space. #UNITY21 #VirginGalactic

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 22, 2021

“Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement after the flight. “We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”

“We hit it as near-perfect as you can in flight test,” Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety, said in an interview after the flight. The hybrid motor burned for the full duration and the vehicle reached its planned altitude, he said. “It was executed as near to the plan as you could hope for. It was a great flight.”

This was the first SpaceShipTwo flight since one in December that was aborted just as the hybrid motor ignited. The plane glided back to a safe landing, and the company traced the problem to electromagnetic interference from a new flight computer system, an issue the company spent several months correcting. After addressing a potential maintenance issue with WhiteKnightTwo, the company confirmed plans for this test flight May 20.

“It looks like that problem is mitigated,” Moses said. “From everything we saw today, there’s zero evidence of any effect of any of that. The motor performed fine and the other computer systems performed fine.”

The flight was the first trip to space for SpaceShipTwo since a February 2019 flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. That flight carried three people to the edge of space, but also suffered damage to a horizontal stabilizer only recently revealed, prompting a safety review and a series of upgrades to the vehicle. Moses said one of the items the company was testing on this flight was the new horizontal stabilizer structure and control system.

Upcoming flights

Virgin Galactic will perform what Moses described as a “very detailed physical inspection” of both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, while reviewing data from the flight. “That’s going to take us some time, and when we finish that step, we’ll look and see where we are timewise and set a date for the next flight,” he said. “But I would say that the early look is we’re on track to the plan we’ve of advertised in earnings calls.”

This was the first of four SpaceShipTwo missions the company has scheduled for this year, a plan Virgin Galactic confirmed in its May 10 earnings call. The company expects on the next flight to carry four employees, along with the two pilots flying the vehicle, to test the passenger cabin and flight procedures that future customers will follow.

That would be followed by a third flight with the company’s founder, Richard Branson, on board. That will still be considered a test flight, company executives said last fall when they announced those plans. “Who better to assess the experience of what we’re doing here?” Colglazier said then.

A fourth flight is intended to be a fully commercial flight for the Italian Air Force, carrying payloads and several people. Virgin said in its May 10 earnings call that the flight will generate $2 million in revenue, or $500,000 per seat.

The company hasn’t published a schedule for those upcoming flights, other than expecting them to be completed by the fall. Moses declined to estimate when the next test flight would take place, but that “nothing from today makes us think that that plan is not solid.”

Both VSS Unity and the VMS Eve WhiteKnightTwo vehicle will then go into a “multi-month” maintenance period before beginning regular commercial operations, which Virgin Galactic now anticipates to be no sooner than early 2022.

That schedule is far behind the company’s original schedule from 2004, which anticipated beginning commercial flights before 2010. Virgin Galactic suffered extensive development delays, as well as an October 2014 test flight accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

As with the aborted test flight in December, Virgin Galactic did not invite media or many guests to Spaceport America to observe this test. The company said in December that pandemic-related restrictions prevented it from hosting guests at the spaceport. However, nearly all of the state has now moved to “turquoise” in a color-coded framework, the lowest level of risk that allows most businesses to nearly fully reopen.

“Fifteen years ago, New Mexico embarked on a journey to create the world’s first commercial spaceport,” said Branson in the statement. “Today, we launched the first human spaceflight from that very same place, marking an important milestone for both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico.”

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.

Moses said that Lujan Grisham was in attendance at Spaceport America, along with former Gov. Bill Richardson, who was in office when the state agreed to build Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic. “So from a team perspective it was really fantastic to put this into the books, and from the New Mexican perspective, it was really great to put this one into the record books as the first of hopefully very many human spaceflights from the state of New Mexico.”

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...