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Investing in Space

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic reaches space again, this time with first test passenger

Key Points
  • Virgin Galactic told CNBC that the company's spaceflight on Friday had a test passenger on board for the first time.
  • "Beth Moses is on board as a crew member," a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told CNBC.
  • She is the company's astronaut trainer and will test parts of the spacecraft's cabin in preparation for Virgin Galactic's first customers.
  • Unity also carried NASA-funded experiments on this mission.
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Virgin Galactic sends its first test passenger to the edge of space

Two months after the inaugural spaceflight, Virgin Galactic's spacecraft Unity has done it again.

Virgin Galactic sent three human beings on Unity for the first time in Friday's supersonic test flight, which reached three times the speed of sound on its way up. Just before the flight, Richard Branson's space tourism company told CNBC that astronaut trainer Beth Moses is on the company's spacecraft Unity, along with the two pilots.

"Beth Moses is on board as a crew member," a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told CNBC. "She will be doing validation of some of the cabin design elements."

This is the first time Virgin Galactic carried three human beings on its ride to the edge of space. In previous test flights, the two pilots were the only ones inside of the spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft Unity holds up to six passengers along with the two pilots. As the company has more than 600 would-be astronauts signed on to launch, Moses' work is key to preparing Virgin Galactic for commercial operations. Tickets for Virgin Galactic's flights are priced at $250,000 each.

Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael "Sooch" Masucci also became astronauts, as the company said the test flight reached an altitude of 55.9 miles, or nearly 90 kilometers. MacKay, Masucci and Moses join a list of less than 600 human beings who have flown in space.

The U.S. officially consider pilots who have flown above 80 kilometers to be astronauts. Following Virgin Galactic's first successful spaceflight in December, the Department of Transportation awarded pilots Mark Stucky and C.J Sturckow with commercial astronaut wings – only the third and fourth such people recognized as private astronauts.

Unity also carried NASA-funded payloads on this mission. Under NASA's Flight Opportunities program, four experiments flew on board the spacecraft. NASA said that most of these same experiments flew on Unity's first spaceflight, while two also launched on Blue Origin's rocket test flight in January.

"Regular access to reduced-gravity lets researchers collect data needed to mature their technologies for use in deep space," NASA said in a statement.

Mapping Virgin Galactic's flight path

The mission launched horizontally, rather than the traditional vertical method of launching rockets. The jet-powered mothership Eve lifted the spacecraft Unity, taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, the carrier aircraft released Unity.

MacKay and Masucci then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn. The flight pushed Unity to a speed of Mach 3, which is three times the speed of sound, as it screamed into a climb.

After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned, gliding back to land at the runway it took off from about an hour earlier. Unity is the name of the spacecraft built by The Spaceship Company, which Branson also owns. This rocket design is officially known as SpaceShipTwo.

Friday's flight was delayed two days because of high winds in California's Mojave Desert.

In December, the company completed its longest rocket-powered flight ever, with its two pilots becoming Virgin Galactic's first astronauts. That test flight reached an altitude of 51.4 miles, or nearly 83 kilometers.

WATCH: Virgin Galactic flies its first astronauts

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Virgin Galactic flies its first astronauts, taking a step closer to space tourism