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Virgin Galactic carries test passenger to space for the first time

Feb. 22 (UPI) — Virgin Galactic’s space plane carried three people to the edge of space and back for the first time on Friday.

According to NASA, space begins 50 miles from Earth’s surface. During Friday’s test flight, VSS Unity reached an altitude of 56 miles. In December, the plane reached an apex of just more than 51 miles above Earth’s surface.

In addition to spending a bit more time in suborbital space, Friday’s flight featured a test passenger for the first time. Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci were joined by Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor.

“Beth Moses, experienced zero-g float time as SpaceShipTwo reached apogee today,” Virgin Galactic tweeted.

Moses is the first woman to enter space aboard a commercial vehicle.

VSS Unity is Virgin Galactic’s newest version of SpaceShip Two. The company hopes the plane will soon carry tourists on brief trips to space.

The spaceplane doesn’t launch from the ground. Instead, it is carried to 45,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert by the company’s carrier aircraft WhiteKnight Two. VSS Unity launches midair, separating from its carrier and climbing to just beyond Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 3 speeds, three times the speed of sound.

Moses’ presence in the cabin allowed Virgin Galactic engineers to more closely replicate the craft’s weight distribution during flights carrying the first space tourists.

“Although we passed a major milestone in December, we still have a way to go in testing the many factors that can affect a flight,” the company announced in a press release prior to Friday’s flight. “So, for this flight, we will be expanding the envelope to gather new and vital data essential to future tests and operations, including vehicle center of gravity.”

In addition to Moses, VSS Unity also carried four experimental payloads provided by NASA. The payloads will help NASA scientists better understand the effects of microgravity on different types of liquids, gases and other materials.

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