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Virgin Galactic sends astronauts briefly into space

The space plane "Unity" travelled 54 miles above Earth, providing a great view and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic
The space plane "Unity" travelled 54 miles above Earth, providing a great view and a few minutes of weightlessness.

Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic has successfully completed its second fully-crewed flight to the final frontier.

The rocket plane "Unity" was released from a carrier aircraft this morning high above the New Mexico desert. It ignited its engine and shot up to 54.2 miles above the planet, according to the company. That's high enough to get a great view and experience a few minutes of weightlessness, but not enough to stay in space, circling the Earth.

Unlike other companies that use rockets to launch space capsules, Virgin Galactic uses a kind of rocket-powered plane to shoot up to the edge of the atmosphere. The Virgin program has not been without its problems: In 2014, a pilot was killed during a test flight the went awry, and in 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration briefly grounded the space plane for deviating from its scheduled flightpath on its first fully-crewed flight, which had Branson on board.

The company has also faced financial pressures. Its stock price has sagged in the past year, and its sister company, Virgin Orbit,declared bankruptcy earlier this spring.

The flight is the company's first in nearly two years, and the crew was made up solely of Virgin Galactic employees.

It hopes to begin regular commercial operations in June.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.