Virgin Galactic Tourist Spaceship VSS Unity
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft the VSS Unity completed a successful glide test last week, keeping the company on track to operate the first space tourist expeditions later this year.

The test pushed “Unity’s atmospheric capabilities hard, touching top-end glide speeds as pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and Michael ‘Sooch’ Masucci completed a busy test card,” the company said in an update.

On Thursday, the Unity was released from its mothership over the Mojave Desert at an altitude of 50,000 feet and began a steep descent. The spacecraft accelerated to Mach 0.9 to test its flight performance, stability and control before safely landing.

“At this stage of the glide flight programme, each flight is essentially a dry run for rocket-powered test flights,” according to Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic Tourist Spaceship VSS Unity Spaceport
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Over the next few months, the team will add elements to each test flight to closer replicate space exploration. The company is on-time to reach founder Richard Branson’s goal of being on a suborbital test flight by April. Commercial flights are expected to begin by the end of the year.

The spacecraft is capable of carrying six customers and two pilots. The 2.5-hour experience includes six minutes of weightlessness and the ability to view the Earth’s curvature from space.

A ticket aboard the Unity spacecraft cost $250,000. Hundreds of people — including Stephen Hawking, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber, have already placed a deposit for a voyage into space.

The successful test flight happened about three years after one pilot was killed in Virgin Galactic’s fatal crash in the Mojave. It took two years after the crash for the Federal Aviation Administration to re-issue the company a commercial operating license.