The emerging space tourism company Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson made the first flight with its spacecraft engine since a fatal accident in 2014.
The spacecraft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo Unity, has performed seven glide tests since its construction in 2016. As in previous tests, this aircraft was taken to the upper Mojave Desert this morning by the White Knight Two aircraft, much more big company But this time, pilots Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay fired the Unity engines and continued into the sky. The spacecraft reached supersonic speeds before the engines were cut, and then slid down for a safe landing at the company's spaceport in Mojave.
The problem that led to the fall of Virgin Galactic in 2014 had to do with the wings of the tail of the ship. The wings of SpaceShipTwo are adjustable so that pilots can perform a maneuver known as "feathering", which helps decelerate the aircraft when it reaches the peak of its parabolic flight trajectory. During that last powered flight, co-pilot Michael Alsbury unlocked the tail fins early, while SpaceShipTwo was still accelerating. This resulted in forces over 9G, which tore the plane apart, according to a later NTSB investigation. Alsbury was killed in the accident and pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.
Virgin Galactic remained on the ground for just over two years after the routine test flight went awry. Meanwhile, the company built a new version of SpaceShipTwo from scratch with better safety controls on the wing locking mechanism of the tail.
Today's successful Unity test places Virgin Galactic back in the position to continue testing these flights on the road to fulfill Branson's ultimate goal of transporting tourists on short trips to space. When that could happen it is still a source of debate.