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Virgin Galactic pilots fly first crewed spaceflight from New Mexico

May 22, 2021

 — CJ Sturckow's sixth launch into space was unlike any that came before, for him or for anyone else.

Frederick "CJ" Sturckow lifted off on his second suborbital spaceflight as a Virgin Galactic pilot on the company's SpaceShipTwo "Unity" spacecraft on Saturday (May 22). The relatively short hop — the test flight took off at 8:35 a.m. MDT and landed at 9:43 a.m. MDT (1435 to 1543 GMT) — added several more minutes to Sturckow's time outside Earth's atmosphere, which already totaled more than 51 days logged on four space shuttle missions as a NASA astronaut and Unity's first flight into space in December 2018.

On those earlier flights, though, Sturckow launched from Florida or California, just like every other person who left the U.S. soil for space over the past 60 years. On Saturday, Sturckow, together with Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay, lifted off from a new place: New Mexico.

"Fifteen years ago, New Mexico embarked on a journey to create the world's first commercial spaceport," said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. "Today, we launched the first human spaceflight from that very same place, marking an important milestone for both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico."

It was Virgin Galactic's first successful spaceflight from Spaceport America, the company's commercial headquarters, located southeast of the small resort town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Up until February 2020, Virgin Galactic had based its flight operations out of Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California.

"Virgin Galactic has twice demonstrated the success of [its] spaceflight system design by flying to space twice from Mojave. Following this accomplishment, the team packed up all of the necessary equipment and personnel, moving them 830 miles [1,335 km] eastward to Spaceport America," Sturckow said in an interview released by Virgin Galactic prior to a first attempt at the flight in December 2020.

Like Sturckow's and Mackay's previous suborbital spaceflights (Mackay flew on the company's second launch from Mojave Air and Spaceport in February 2019), Saturday's flight began with the two pilots riding on SpaceShipTwo Unity while it was mounted under its "VMS Eve" WhiteKnightTwo mothership. After takeoff from Spaceport America's 12,000-foot-long (3,700-m) runway, the carrier aircraft lofted the spacecraft to about 44,000 feet (13,411 m) altitude.

Unity then dropped away from VMS Eve and seconds later, Sturckow and Mackay ignited their spacecraft's engine to boost them at Mach 3 to 55.45 miles (89.2 km) — 5.45 miles (8.8 km) above the spaceflight qualifying altitude under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. The pilots then reconfigured their spacecraft to re-enter the atmosphere and glide back to a landing at Spaceport America.

The flight profile was similar to what Virgin Galactic plans for its passengers, but was tailored to support two NASA-sponsored science payloads. Instead of orienting Unity to point its windows at Earth, Sturckow and Mackay pitched the vehicle 270 degrees after engine cutoff to get into the entry attitude as soon as possible. The maneuver extended the time for the experiments to collect data.

"That's one of the great things about our system, because it's pilot-flown, we're able to fly different mission profiles and meet the needs of our passengers in the cabin whether that's payloads or people," said Sturckow.

The flight also tested refinements to Unity's horizontal stabilizers ("H-Stabs") designed to enhance the performance of the spaceship during powered flight and initiated the seat recline feature on the vehicle's passenger seats for the first time in microgravity. Virgin Galactic also planned to test the live stream capability from the spaceship to the ground.

A key objective of this flight was to test the remedial work completed on Unity to lower the electromagnetic interference (EMI) levels experienced on a Dec. 12, 2020 first attempt at this same spaceflight when an on board computer aborted ignition of the rocket motor. Saturday's flight also followed the completion of an engineering review of VMS Eve, as a result of a a known maintenance item in the tail of the vehicle.

VMS Eve was piloted for Saturday's flight by Virgin Galactic pilots Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci.

Virgin Galactic anticipated that Saturday's flight will provide some of the data it needs to close out its final verification reports required by the FAA to remove the remaining conditions attached to its commercial spaceflight license. With this flight completed and after reviewing the data it collected, the company plans to move onto its next phase of flight tests, flying four mission specialists in the cabin.

"Today's flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico," Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic CEO, said in a statement. "We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone."

Already the first and only person to earn military, NASA and civilian astronaut wings, Sturckow is now also the first person to fly into space from three different U.S. states. He and Mackay are the second crew, however, to return from space to New Mexico. In 1982, NASA's STS-3 crew of Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton landed space shuttle Columbia at White Sands Space Harbor near Alamogordo.

Saturday's flight from Spaceport America was more than 15 years in the making. Construction on "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport" began in 2006 and the facility was dedicated five years later. Since then, the spaceport has sat waiting for Virgin Galactic to move its flight operations from California and start spaceflights from New Mexico.

"After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars," said New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham. "Our state's scientific legacy has been honored by this important achievement, one that took guts and faith and an unwavering belief in what New Mexico can achieve — and indeed is destined to achieve. I can't wait to see what comes next."

 



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