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Virgin Galactic flies a surprise passenger to suborbital space

An unexpected crew member, plus some NASA experiments, ride along for the latest test flight of Richard Branson's SpaceShipTwo.

The VSS Unity arrived safely back on the ground after achieving a test flight milestone in December 2018.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic laid claim to spaceflight in December when its rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo reached 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) above Earth's surface. The space plane headed out for a fifth supersonic powered test flight on Friday, this time with a third person on board. It successfully reached suborbital space and returned safely.

The company is testing some aspects of its customer cabin designed for tourists. Virgin Galactic revealed there was a third crew member besides the two pilots. The surprise addition was Beth Moses, the company's chief astronaut instructor, who spent 24 years working at NASA.

"She will provide human validation for the data we collect. Including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back," Virgin Galactic tweeted. The company had not mentioned her in its releases prior to the flight.

The plane VSS Unity is the same one that earned its pilots commercial astronaut wings after its last flight. The space plane works by hitching a ride on Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, and then separating and rocketing off under its own power.   

Virgin Galactic posted a look at the mothership and VSS Unity after takeoff from a runway in Mojave, California.

VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3.0 and coasted into suborbital space, reaching nearly 56 miles (90 kilometers) above Earth. "Welcome back to space," Virgin Galactic tweeted.

SpaceShipTwo had four NASA research payloads along for the ride during the Friday flight. The experiments involved life support systems and electromagnetic fields. "The spaceship will be a little heavier than last time, and very close to a full commercial weight," said Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said last year he hopes to be one of the first passengers. Today's successful test flight gets space fans one step closer to experiencing microgravity for themselves.