VSS Unity flew its first non-crew passengers 11 July 2021. Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla strapped in for the ride alongside business mogul and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and four crew today. Branson’s personal faith in the machine marks a milestone of its own, and signals the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space tourism service.
Bandla and Branson were joined on the flight by fellow Virgin Galactic crew Beth Moses (astronaut trainer) and Colin Bennett (operations engineer). Also aboard were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci.
The spaceflight kicked off when mothership WhiteKnightTwo released VSS Unity over Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity then crossed the McDowell Line and reached an apogee of 86 km around 1528UT, just two minutes into flight. Unity‘s time in free flight was just 14 minutes from airdrop to landing, of which perhaps three minutes were usable zero-G for the passengers.
Today’s flight marks a stepping stone on the long journey that began when aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan first conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1994. Rutan’s team was the only viable competitor for the 10 M$ Ansari XPrize, winning it in 2004. Afterward, Sir Richard Branson stepped in, forming Virgin Galactic, a joint venture to develop the vessel into a viable space tourism platform, but the effort suffered a major setback when two test pilots were killed in VSS Enterprise on Halloween 2014 in a crash traced to the vessel’s wing locking system. The sister ship flown today, which was first named Voyager, did not reach space until late in 2018.
The spectacle around the event also was also marked by Sir Richard’s unique touch as a media mogul. Any crewed spaceflight has a telecast; it’s traditional to get a panel of engineers, astronauts, and press officers calling out flight events and colour commentary. It’s another thing entirely to get Stephen Colbert. There have been musical interludes at spaceflights, but these have often been pompous, operatic, set to the tune of a Sousa march. Few have been as memorable as Khalid serenading the crowd with a new R&B single, “New Normal”.
Khalid, an artist from nearby El Paso, plans to fly on Virgin Galactic on an upcoming flight, and got an early welcome to the astronaut club from Colonel Hadfield on the sunny tarmac while Unity was unloaded and its crew awaited its astronaut wings. Khalid is signed to RCA Records, rather than Virgin EMI, which is no longer affiliated with the Virgin Group.