Virgin Galactic has completed its first powered flight since a fatal crash nearly four years, a milestone which Sir Richard Branson said brought space ‘tantalisingly close.’
The company has struggled to re-establish itself following the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, who was killed when his aircraft crashed into the Mojave Desert in California in October 2014.
Virgin Galactic had promised to send space tourists to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere where they could see the curvature of the planet and experience weightlessness.
But after Captain Alsbury’s death, some customers who had already bought tickets demanded refunds, and the company spent years redesigning the craft, carrying out extensive engine testing and glide tests before attempting another supersonic flight.
On Thursday the Unity spacecraft took up with a two member crew from the Mojave Air and Space port, lifted by the jet-powered mothership Eve. It then powered up for 30 seconds and landed safely.
It puts Britain firmly back in the commercial tourism and launch provider space race, which until recently the US appeared to be winning. Branson said Virgin Galactic was ‘back on track’ and confirmed that the flight had reached Mach 1.6, more than 1.5 times the speed of sound.
Announcing the success on Twitter, he added: “Data review to come, then on to the next flight. Space feels tantalisingly close now.”
The entire project has been dogged with problems. Two of the six flights made by SpaceShipOne suffered potentially catastrophic problems. And in 2007, an explosion killed three engineers.
Before the accident, Virgin Galactic said the first space tourism flights would begin in the Spring of 2015.
Even in the November following the crash CEO George Whitesides said it would be ‘months not years’ until commercial flights began, but an investigation found there had been inadequate safety features and the team was forced to go back to the drawing board, unveiling a new design in 2016.
Around 24 passengers pulled out and have had the $250,000 (£157,000) ticket price refunded. Although some may only have paid deposits, the company stands to lose more than £3 million in lost sales.
High profile ticket-holders include Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and, until his death Stephen Hawking. In October, Virgin Galactic was given a huge $1 billion boost from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the time, Branson said the company was just months away from sending a ship into Earth’s atmosphere.
Following the flight Virgin Galactic tweeted: “Touch down. Congratulations Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay for a great milestone test flight”