Aerospace & Defence

How close are we to commercial space flight?

7th June 2021
Alex Lynn

It feels like Richard Branson has been talking about whisking us all into space for decades, but what progress is actually being made? With Virgin Galactic completing the first of three test flights on May 22nd, it seems like 2021 might finally be the year that commercial space flight sees its launch.

The flights were the first ever to be launched from Spaceport America, based in New Mexico. The ship was called the VSS Unity, and was released from its carrier ship – the VSS Eve – at eight miles, before climbing up to a speed of Mach 3, which is around 2,300mph. The flight rose to an altitude of 55 miles, meaning it reached earth’s thermosphere, but was just under the Kármán Line – a common but by no means definitive marker for where ‘space’ begins, 62 miles above sea level.

Sir Richard Branson, who watched the flight from the ground, told the BBC: "It was a beautifully elegant experience. We had the backdrop of New Mexico, the mountains with the Sun coming up; we could see the spaceship clearly from the ground just going straight up. And, yeah, burning, burning, burning, until it finally disappeared into space."

Unity was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay and completed a number of goals the company had, including completing a profitable research experiment as part of Nasa’s Flight Opportunities programme; gathering data to help Unity achieve certification from the FAA; and carrying out vital tests of the Unity’s new horizontal stabilisers.

Despite the large number of people on Virgin Galactic’s customer waiting list, the Unity cannot take anyone into space until it becomes fully licensed, a procedure that it being overseen by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These latest test flights are going to provide new data for the FAA to look over, and the administration will be looking for corrections to previously recorded errors – such as the electrical interference on the December test flight – and to make sure no new concerns have cropped up.  

Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico. Space travel is a bold and adventurous endeavour, and I am incredibly proud of our talented team for making the dream of private space travel a reality. We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”

The next flight that Virgin Galactic has planned will see some employees onboard the ship, in order to start drawing up a clear idea about what customers will be able to expect when they get ready to fly with Virgin Galactic. And providing everything comes back positive from the May test flights and this future one, the flight after that would see Sir Richard Branson himself heading up past the stratosphere.

Ten years ago, we were all led to believe that commercial space flight was right around the corner, and now, a decade later, it seems like that is finally the case. And as Virgin Galactic gets closer, the competition is starting to bubble back to life as well. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are also reportedly getting the ball rolling on their own versions of commercial space flight to compete with Virgin.

There are also reports that some companies are interested in building commercial space stations that people can fly up and visit!

Although, with the huge amount of interest, it seems fair to say that there will be plenty of customers to go around for the foreseeable future, no matter the competition.

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