Virgin Galactic rocket ship ascends from New Mexico

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Virgin Galactic on Saturday made its first rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the fringe of space in a manned shuttle, as the company forges toward offering tourist flights to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic announced the firing of VSS Unity’s rocket motor to hurtle the ship and two pilots toward space. A live feed by NASASpaceFlight.com showed the rocket ship accelerating upward, estimated a top altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) and confirmed a landing later via radar.

British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson confirmed in a Twitter post that the two pilots and a research payload belonging to NASA had reached space.

Virgin Galactic is aiming for commercial operations to begin next year following testing and a few months of downtime for maintenance and other upgrades. That testing will include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space later this year.

The first powered test in New Mexico from Spaceport America was delayed repeatedly before Saturday’s launch. In December 2020, computer trouble caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship’s rocket from firing properly. Instead of soaring toward space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.

While Virgin Galactic’s stock price ticked up this week with the announcement of the latest test being scheduled for Saturday, it wasn’t enough to overcome the losses seen since a peak in February. Some analysts have cautioned that it could be a while before the company sees profits as the exact start of commercial operations is still up in the air.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a billionaire and his sweepstakes winners in September. That should be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground. It’s planning for liftoff of its first crewed flight on July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before. The first time was from California in December 2018. The company marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.

Preparations for the latest attempt included a maintenance review of the special carrier plane that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to a high altitude, where it is released so it can fire its rocket motor and make the final push to space.

The flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before the rocket motor is turned off and the crew prepares to reenter the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows and stabilizes the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.

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