Richard Branson, the billionaire co-founder of Virgin Galactic, and four other passengers were launched into space Sunday morning after Virgin Galactic lifted off from a runway at Spaceport America, some 170 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The VSS Unity spacecraft was mounted to WhiteKnightTwo, a twin-fuselage plane that lifted off at 10:45 a.m. and achieved a speed of roughly 2,300 mph.
It reached 9 miles in height after about 50 minutes and was jettisoned from its mothership. An hour later, Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo successfully landed at Spaceport America.
Two pilots and three other Virgin Galactic employees are on the flight. The crew plans to test out the experience that hundreds of others plan to have soon because the company already has sold tickets for $250,000 per person.
The other three crew members are Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. The pilots are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.
On Friday, Blue Origin posted on Twitter a comparison of its New Shepard rocket trips to Virgin Galactic’s vehicle, calling Branson’s ride a “high-altitude airplane.”
Blue Origin pointed out that its rocket travels to the Kármán line of 62 miles high, an international standard to define space, while the VSS Unity will only surpass the historic U.S. standard for space, which is 50 miles up.
Branson and many others in the industry have said they don’t mind the comparisons or the competition, since many who can afford to may fly on both vehicles.
Virgin Galactic plans to start regular passenger flights next year.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA’s second crew to the International Space Station at 5:49 a.m. Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.