SIERRA COUNTY – After a night of rainy weather that delayed the mission by more than an hour and a half, Virgin Galactic’s “Unity 22” mission – the 22nd for its VSS Unity space plane – was launched at around 8:42 a.m. with a crew of six. on board, including Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
The carrier plane VMS Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico to the cheers of hundreds of guests gathered near the main hangar, where a stage platform had been set up in anticipation of a musical performance after the flight of Unity.
Branson and his fellow mission specialists – astronaut instructor Beth Moses, chief operations engineer Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic executive (and aeronautical engineer) Sirisha Bandla – were greeted with cheers as they boarded SUVs that rolled them onto the runway to board the spacecraft.
This was the second suborbital space flight for Moses, who flew as a test passenger on Virgin’s test flight on February 22, 2019.
Minutes before the launch, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said international attention to Sunday’s flight would help cement New Mexico’s place in space exploration history, including the advent of commercial service; and give it a more prominent position to attract aerospace and other companies.
âWe’re not just competing; by God, New Mexico is in the lead, âshe exulted in a scuffle with reporters.
As for the state’s relationship with Virgin Galactic, the main tenant of a spaceport built with taxpayer dollars, Lujan Grisham said she hopes the relationship will extend to job creation.
âLet’s bring their manufacturing team here,â she said. “This is something New Mexico doesn’t have enough of, and we have all the talent and the tools to do it.”
To all appearances, a smooth mission
The Unity was flown by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, while the Eve aircraft was flown by CJ Sturckow and Kelly Lattimer.
From the takeoff of the plane to the safe landing of Unity a few minutes later at around 9:40 a.m., the mission appeared to go smoothly from start to finish.
It was covered live by company representatives as part of a program hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert, mostly focusing on praising Branson and promoting the company.
To the naked eye, as the Unity’s rocket engine ignited, a bright dot appeared in the sky as the Unity fell from the plane and started picking up speed on a horizontal flight path before making its âgamma turnâ upwards.
Video footage on board the Unity was intermittent as the plane hit Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound), including a cabin video of Branson looking out the window, beaming, at one point to grab Bennett’s leg, sitting behind him.
Secretary of State for Economic Development Alicia Keyes, who chairs the state agency that oversees the spaceport, was seen watching the mission along with Virgin Galactic staff as well as spaceport director Scott McLaughlin.
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According to the coverage provided by the company and the intermittent images of the cabin, the crew broke away in order to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness in the passenger cabin. They also saw the Earth from above through the cabin windows after the pilots activated the plane’s feather device, overturning the craft.
They attached themselves as the craft glided toward the surface at high speed, creating two deep sonic booms as it made its way toward the house, nose down. Mackay and Masucci controlled the speed of the Unity by positioning the nose as it descended for a safe glide, the Virgin logo visible on the belly of the craft as it passed overhead, landing south from the spaceport.
On Sunday, the ship again passed an altitude of 50 miles, which the US space agency NASA recognizes as the threshold of space, although other international agencies place space on the KÃ¡rmÃ¡n Line, or 62 miles above sea level. above sea level.
As the crew disembarked and Unity was towed to the main spaceport hangar, rhythm and blues artist Khalid – from El Paso, Texas – played a song celebrating the milestone, titled “New Normal”, then sang other songs under the name Unity. approached, visible mainly via a drone and a camera mounted on a crane.
“A new space age”
After the mission, a tightly choreographed ceremony was held with a recorded musical score as Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier paid tribute to the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, a Virgin Galactic supporter who is believed to have given the Virgin Galactic his name. Unity.
Branson took the stage shortly before the crew received the official Federal Aviation Administration astronaut badges, heralding “the dawn of a new space age” and claiming that Virgin Galactic will be the “space liner for Earth”.
Branson also announced a raffle to win seats on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight to include a Branson-led tour of Spaceport America which he promised would include “lots of chocolate.”
The company is in its final phase of test flight as it prepares to begin regular commercial service in 2022. In addition to sightseeing flights, the company has contracts to fly research payloads, scientists and personnel. Italian Air Force personnel in training to become astronauts.
During a new conference, the team answered questions from journalists as well as students from Las Cruces public schools who had also witnessed the mission.
The crew expressed their admiration for the direct observation of the Earth’s curvature and the silent stillness they felt at the top of the flight.
“I’m definitely still up there,” Branson remarked at the conference. “I’m going to fall soon with a loud thud.”
Mike Moses, President of Virgin Space Missions and Security, said the ship “looks perfect” based on an initial inspection and that all systems were working fine except for the choppy video and audio transmission from the cabin on the ground during the flight.
However, it was not yet clear how quickly the Unity could be returned for its next flight.