Virgin Galactic—the space tourism company founded by our favorite mid-aughts reality-TV-star billionaire (no, not that one), Richard Branson—has kept a lower profile in the years following the devastating in-flight loss of its VSS Enterprise test spaceship and the death of one of its pilots. But now, having reemerged with a newer, safer incarnation of its SpaceShipTwo design—dubbed VSS Unity—the company is once again in the public eye following the craft’s third successful supersonic flight, in which it flew higher and faster than any of the company’s previous launches.
In the morning skies above the Mojave Desert on July 26, the VSS Unity separated successfully from its mothership, the VMS Eve, which had carried the spaceplane to a starting altitude of 46,500 feet. Once free from its nest, the ferocious fledgling fired its rocket for 42 seconds as it shifted to a vertical climb, reaching an astounding velocity of 2.47 times the speed of sound (Mach 2.47) and piercing the mesosphere at a maximum altitude of 170,800 feet before commencing its return to Earth. Just 14.2 minutes after the whole thing kicked off, the spaceship, no worse for the wear, touched down on the strip at Virgin’s Spaceport America facility, where I imagine the Champagne was already flowing.
So in honor of the company’s latest success, we wanted to take a look back at the long and, at least in one case, tragic road that’s led Virgin Galactic to this victory. Read on for a rocket-speed recap of its journey.