On Saturday, with the large grin of Richard Branson to see it off, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, completed its first free flight over the Mojave Desert.
The plane, which was introduced in February, was released from the clutches of its carrier plane around 15:40 GMT. Virgin Galactic says it reached a maximum speed of about 460 miles per hour from an altitude of about 50,000 feet. It reportedly stayed in the air for about 10 minutes during the glide flight, an accomplishment that marks a new chapter in the spaceplane’s journey toward commercial spaceflight.
According to Virgin Galactic, this was the fifth flight VSS Unity and its carrier plane have taken together, but Saturday was the first time Unity flew by itself. Virgin hopes the fancy plane will help usher in a long-anticipated era of private space tourism, and judging by the look on Richard Branson’s face after it landed, he was pretty happy with the result.
The company also noted it still has quite a bit of testing to do before the plane is ready for primetime:
This glide flight was the first of many. We have not yet reached the rocket powered phase of the test flight program—first we need to gather test flight data to confirm our analyses and calculations about how VSS Unity will perform in a wide variety of real-world flight conditions.
The emphasis on testing is fairly standard, but in this case, it also comes with some heavy baggage. In 2014, Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo experienced an “in-flight anomaly” and crashed, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board’s report of the incident, the crash could have been avoided had better safety procedures been in place.
Of course, Virgin Galactic has long been itching to make commercial spaceflight a thing, so this latest flight shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a surefire sign it’s going to happen. At least all that money is going somewhere.