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SpaceShipTwo Unity landing
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity touches down at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the first suborbital space test flight to have three people aboard. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic followed up on last December’s first SpaceShipTwo flight past the 50-mile space milestone by sending up its first non-pilot on today’s test flight.

The crew member who accompanied the two pilots was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor.

Today’s test sent the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to a height of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), Virgin Galactic said.

The flight followed Virgin Galactic’s usual profile: Unity was slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. At an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released into the air and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a minute, screaming toward the black sky of space at a top speed of Mach 3.04.

After a zero-gravity coast at the top of the ride, Unity glided back to the airport for an airplane-like landing. Eve made its own landing minutes later.

It was Unity’s fifth supersonic test flight, setting the stage for what could be the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year.

During previous SpaceShipTwo flights, only the two test pilots were onboard. But now that VSS Unity has demonstrated it can get past the 50-mile altitude mark safely, Virgin Galactic is turning its attention to the astronaut experience.

Today Moses sat behind Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, David Mackay, and lead trainer pilot Mike “Mooch” Masucci. Unlike the pilots, Moses could unhook herself from her seat and float freely in weightlessness.

“I just have to say, that is intense, and beautiful, and indescribable,” Moses said after the flight, in a video posted by Parabolic Arc.

Moses could arguably qualify as Virgin Galactic’s first passenger; however, the company characterized her as a crew member in its post-mission news release. In any case, she qualifies as the first woman to fly aboard a privately funded spaceship.

Unity can accommodate as many as six passengers, but the cabin is still in the process of being outfitted. A fair amount of room on today’s flight was taken up by scientific experiments that flew under the terms of an agreement with NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. The four NASA-supported payloads included:

All four experiments previously flew on suborbital space missions, either with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.

More than 600 customers have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve their seats for suborbital space rides. Some of them are researchers hoping to accompany their experiments during a precious few minutes of microgravity, but many of them are tourists looking forward to the thrill of acceleration, weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of Earth. Some of those future fliers were in the crowd looking on at Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin Galactic’s operations are due to shift to Spaceport America once the test program in Mojave is completed. The company’s British-born billionaire founder, Richard Branson, has said he’ll ride on the first commercial flight, potentially just months from now.

“Flying the same vehicle safely to space and back twice in a little over two months, while at the same time expanding the flight envelope, is testament to the unique capability we have built up within the Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company organizations,” Branson said.

He said he was “immensely proud” of the crew, including Moses.

“Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves,” Branson said. “The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet.”

Earlier this month, the test pilots who flew on December’s 50-mile-high mission received their astronaut wings from the U.S. Department of Transportation. But there could be a bit of debate over bragging rights when Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture starts flying people, potentially this year.

During an onstage interview this week with Space News at a New York Wings Club luncheon, Bezos noted that Blue Origin’s passengers will fly beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) Karman Line, which is currently viewed by international aerospace associations as the boundary line for outer space.

“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet. I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line,” Bezos told Space News.

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he said. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

On the other side of the debate, space experts are taking a fresh look at the Karman Line definition, and there’s a good chance that the official boundary line will be lowered from 100 kilometers to 80 kilometers … that is, 50 miles.

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