Virgin Galactic did what it set out to do from the beginning and launched its first crew to space, carrying founder Richard Branson himself as part of the Unity 22 crew. After just three previous flights to space, Unity made the successful flight early Sunday morning in front of a huge crowd that assembled at Spaceport America in New Mexico where takeoff and landing occurred.
Branson’s flight marks a new era of spaceflight, opening the doors to space tourism and setting off a mini space race between commercial spaceflight companies. It wasn’t until Jeff Bezos announced plans to launch aboard Blue Origin’s own launch system, New Shepard, designed for commercial suborbital launches that Branson and Virgin Galactic announced a launch of their own.
Virgin Galactic’s own launch system is unique, involving a carrier aircraft, named VMS Eve, that takes off with spacecraft VSS Unity in tow. As VMS Eve reaches a specific altitude, 45,000 ft, VSS Unity is released and uses its rocket engines to take the spacecraft to the edge of space. The whole world got to witness this launch process when Unity 22 took off from New Mexico just after 9:30 am CT.
Once Unity’s rocket engines cutoff, the crew was able to unbuckle themselves and experience the weightlessness of space for four minutes. Unity is covered in windows to give passengers and crew ample ability to take in the view, something Branson and crew remarked on when they returned to Earth.
Unity 22 was a test flight, meant to demonstrate the abilities of the spacecraft in general, but also to demonstrate how it can be used for both space tourism flights and research trips by scientists and engineers. Each crew member was chosen specifically because of their roles within the company and their ability to demonstrate these goals during a test flight.
In addition to Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla made up the Unity 22 crew. Beth Moses is Virgin’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and was able to demonstrate her role for the second time, guiding the new crew of astronauts through their own spaceflight experience. Lead operations engineer, Colin Bennett performed a series of tasks at the very beginning of the flight, demonstrating procedures and equipment in the cabin. Finally, Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research operations conducted experiments for the University of Florida in flight to demonstrate the microgravity research capabilities that are possible.