Virgin Galactic rocket flies to the edge of space in step towards sending up tourists

22 May 2021, 22:19 | Updated: 22 May 2021, 22:38

Two pilots made the flight in the VSS Unity
Two pilots made the flight in the VSS Unity. Picture: Virgin Galactic

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Virgin Galactic has sent a rocket-powered shuttle to the edge of space as the company moves closer to offering tourist flights.

Two pilots made the flight in the VSS Unity on Saturday.

A live feed by showed the rocket accelerating upwards, estimated it reached a top altitude of at least 50 miles and confirmed a landing later via radar.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said in a Twitter post that the two pilots and a research payload belonging to Nasa had reached space.

The company is aiming for commercial operations to begin next year following testing and a few months for maintenance and other upgrades.

That testing will include a flight that will take Sir Richard to the edge of space later this year.

The first powered test from Spaceport America in New Mexico was delayed repeatedly before Saturday's launch.

In December 2020, computer trouble caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship's rocket from firing properly.

Instead of soaring toward space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.

While Virgin Galactic's stock price ticked up this week with the announcement of the latest test, it was not enough to overcome the losses seen since a peak in February.

Some analysts have cautioned that it could be a while before the company sees profits as the exact start of commercial operations is still up in the air.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.

Elon Musk's SpaceX will launch four people, a billionaire and sweepstake winners, into space in September. That should be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station.

Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its programme for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.

It is planning for lift-off of its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before - the first time was from California in December 2018. The company marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.