VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft made entirely from carbon composites, has notched up the first rocket-powered flight to space with a full crew.
Stronger and lighter than its metal counterparts while eliminating corrosion, the composite material is proprietary and comes after a large investment in research.
Billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson said the advanced material spacecraft – which features six carbon-fibre reclining seats in the cabin allowing astronauts to take in the views of earth from a dozen round windows — marked “the vanguard of a new space age.”
“For so long, we have looked back in wonder at the space pioneers of yesterday. Now, I want the astronauts of tomorrow to look forward and make their own dreams come true.’Sir Richard Branson
The July 11 expedition, known as the Unity 22 Mission because it was VSS Unity’s 22nd test flight, allowed the crew in the cabin to evaluate the customer experience with a view to launching commercial service.
The craft spent around five minutes in weightlessness, with the crew – including lead flight operations engineer Colin Bennett– gazing at earth and space from 17 windows on the craft before strapping back into their seats for reentry.
It can take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to space. It starts its flight attached to a mothership, which carries it to altitude and then releases it. This triggers the onboard rocket motor to fire up, blasting the vehicle up to a minimum of 62 miles above earth’s surface—the internationally accepted boundary where outer space begins.
VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve. The vehicle reached space, at an altitude of 53.5 miles, before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, said the flight marked an historic moment for a new commercial space industry.
“With each successful mission we are paving the way for the next generation of astronauts. They are helping open the door for greater access to space – so it can be for the many and not just for the few.”Michael Colglazier | CEO, Virgin Galactic
This week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to visit space on Blue Origin’s first flight with people on board. Its New Shepard rocket — named after America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard– reached an altitude of about 106 kilometres during a ten-minute flight.