Virgin Galactic’s spaceship VSS Unity has landed in the New Mexico desert after its first glide flight from Spaceport America as the company moves towards commercial operations.
The company announced the flight on social media and shared photos of the craft on the runaway and members of the crew stationed far apart around the special carrier plane that ferries the smaller spaceship to high altitude.
After years of development and testing at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, Virgin Galactic is close to starting actual operations at its futuristic terminal and hangar in southern New Mexico.
The company has not set a date for the first commercial flights but has said it anticipates doing so in 2020.
A small number of test flights are needed before Virgin Galactic can take paying customers on supersonic thrill rides to the lower reaches of space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth below.
Today SpaceShipTwo Unity completed its first glide flight from Spaceport America. This is the first time our spaceship has flown freely in New Mexico and completes a vital milestone in its flight test program. https://t.co/0MSv7H90GY pic.twitter.com/UMuVf9FcsE— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 1, 2020
The suborbital flights will reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before the spaceship glides to a landing.
The company considered Friday’s flight a major achievement that has been in the works since the spaceship and carrier plane relocated to New Mexico in February.
The flight provided the first opportunity to test all the components required to fly the carrier aircraft and spaceship in glide configuration from their new home base.
Officials will now be reviewing data gathered during the exercise so they can prepare for the next test flight.
More than 600 customers from around the world have put down firm deposits for flights, and Virgin Galactic has received about 8,000 online reservations of interest since the successful test flight into space in December 2018.
Company officials expect that interest to surpass the company’s capacity for flights for the next few years.
The initial seats were sold at 250,000 dollars apiece. Those who want to register interest online are paying a fully refundable deposit of 1,000 dollars.
Virgin Galactic said that stringent operational protocols were in place during the glide flight at Spaceport America to ensure safety amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Todayâs glide flight is being conducted under a set of stringent operational protocols to ensure safety against COVID-19. These protocols include changes to the work areas and procedures to enforce social distancing as advised by state guidelines as well as universal mask useage pic.twitter.com/a0wVUSx2Bj— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 1, 2020
The protocols included the use of masks, changes to the work areas and procedures to enforce social distancing.
Many employees have been working remotely during the pandemic, and Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses said in a recent blog post that the team has been busy with relief efforts.
They have donated meals, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to communities and hospitals in New Mexico and California.
The company also has made donations of more than 60,000 dollars in New Mexico and is working on developing oxygen hoods that could potentially help Covid-19 patients.
Virgin Galactic went public on the New York Stock Exchange last autumn. Company officials are preparing to release their first quarter results on Tuesday.