Unity, the winged space plane owned by Branson's Virgin Galactic, achieved supersonic flight in a test run over California’s Mojave Desert.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on May 30, 2018

Virgin Galactic intends to use this vehicle to offer recreational space flights, possibly as soon as later this year.

“Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking,” Richard Branson said after the vehicle landed.

“We are getting ever closer to realising our goals.”

Its top speed was recorded at almost Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

As planned, the space plane’s rocket motor burned for 31 seconds and propelled Unity as high as 35,000 metres.

It then successfully deployed its feathering system to safely descend back to earth and land.

Virgin Galactic had also previously successfully completed a rocket-powered supersonic flight in April this year.

Now, Branson believes it is only “two or three” more successful flights away from being ready for its first journey into space.

Speaking after the flight, Branson said “it was as good as it gets today.”

“They (the pilots) came back with massive beams on their faces. It’s a big, big step.”

Will Branson, Bezos or Musk be the first into space?

Jeff Bezos’ space flight company Blue Origin also hopes to undertake test flights with people on board later this year. It aims to offer 11-minute flights to the edge of space.

Elon Musk is also involved in the space flight race with his company SpaceX. His plan is to send two people into orbit around the moon in what would be the first ever entirely private passenger flight.

Branson recently said he believed either his company or Blue Origin would be the first into space.

“I think we’re both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first,” Branson said of Bezos.

Branson also paid tribute to the work done by SpaceX, which successfully launched a heavy rocket earlier this year.

SpaceX is also leading the charge to colonise Mars and aims to send a rocket to the red planet as early as 2019.

“Elon is doing fantastically well getting cargo into space, and he’s building bigger and bigger rockets.”

Branson made clear, however, that his company will not be cutting corners or taking safety risks in an effort to be the first company operating space flights.

Having multiple companies interested in offering space flights was healthy, he said.

“The more spaceships that get built, the better the price will be, and the bigger the market, and the more resources that Jeff and ourselves will have to invest in exciting things going forward in space.”

Virgin Galactic, a sister company to Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company and part of the Virgin Group, was founded in 2004. Branson initially forecast it would be offered space flights by 2009.

On its website, it describes itself as “developing and operating a new generation of space vehicles to open space for everyone.

“Our mission, to be the Spaceline for Earth, means we focus on using space for good while delivering an unparalleled customer experience.”

Branson preparing for space

Virgin Galactic already has more than 700 people on the wait list for a flight into space.

Tickets for the ride now US$250,000, though some early adopters paid as little as US$50,000.

Branson himself is enthusiastic about being on the first flight and said he is on a fitness regime to prepare himself. The sprightly 67-year-old has been cycling, kiting and playing tennis each day to get in shape.

He has also logged hours in a centrifuge which replicates the gravitational forces passengers will experience on the flight.

Earlier this week he told BBC Radio 4 that a new era of commercial space flight was imminent.

“We’re talking about months not years – so it’s close.

“There are exciting times ahead.”