Virgin Galactica’s suborbital tourist spacecraft SpaceShip Two is launched on its first rocket-powered test since January 2014, this time using a modified rocket engine and a fuel mixture different from its previous test flights. Within seconds of its release and the firing of its engine, things go disastrously wrong: an explosion rips through the vehicle, which tumbles into the Mojave Desert from an altitude of 50,000 feet. One of SpaceShip Two’s pilots, Michael Alsbury, is killed on impact; the other pilot ejects from the vehicle and parachutes to the ground, though he is still severely injured. Virgin Galactic and the National Transportation Safety Board begin an investigation into the accident; though this first flightworthy SpaceShip Two model, the VSS Enterprise, is destroyed, another is under construction.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity lifts off from Spaceport New Mexico on its first fully-crewed flight with passengers, including Virgin Galactic founder/owner Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses (who flew aboard a previous flight), Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett, with veteran Virgin Galactic pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci at the vehicle’s controls. The flight is suborbital only, but does earn the rookies among its crew their commercial astronaut wings. The flight was only announced at the beginning of July, where some observers interpreted the announcement as an attempt to upstage the previous announcement that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin would be flying a fully crewed New Shepard capsule on July 20th. Independent flight of Unity lasts approximate 14 minutes, from drop/booster ignition from its carrier aircraft to landing (total time in both air and space for those aboard is approximately 58 minutes, from takeoff of the carrier aircraft to Unity‘s touchdown on the runway). (The flight system of carrier aircraft and air-dropped spacecraft was established almost exactly 17 years earlier in the first SpaceShipOne flight by Scaled Composites, which sold the design to Virgin Galactic for commercial development.)