Sir Richard Branson: Space tourists are next

Sir Richard Branson: Space tourists are next

The test launch, which took place at 10 a.m. ET, launched more than 50 miles into the air, meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of space.

Virgin Galactic considers that altitude to be the threshold of space because it's defined that way by the Air Force and other US agencies, although others have long considered the boundary to be higher.

But, about five minutes into the test flight, the firm confirmed the two craft had reached 28,000 feet and were "rising smoothly".

"We've had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team", George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane. "It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come".

Virgin Galactic had remained guarded about the details of its flight test. The pilots fired up the rocket for 30 seconds, keeping the nose pointed up, and reached Mach 1.87 before coasting to an altitude of 84,271 feet and gliding back to a landing. The FAA announced that pilots Mark Stucky and C.J Sturckow will be receiving FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings.

In the long term, he said, the company wants to fly "into major airports because we have a winged vehicle that can integrate smoothly in traffic patterns", Whitesides said.

More news: California man freed after two days trapped in restaurant grease vent

During the test flight, it carried four NASA research payloads and a mannequin name Annie as a stand-in passenger. That's different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles (100 kilometers). It did not breach the 100km Karman Line, where Earth's atmosphere ends. "At this altitude, a conventional plane would need to reach orbital velocity or risk falling back to Earth".

Bringing NASA on as a customer made Thursday's flight the first revenue-earning mission for Virgin Galactic. An investigation found that human error - the braking system was triggered too early - and inadequate safety measures were to blame. The believed that the ship should have had better safeguards to protect against such mistakes.

"Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing", Galactic said ahead of the milestone flight.

Just after 8:00 am PT, VSS Unity detached from the mothership and lit its rocket engine, swooping directly upward. It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at almost three times the speed of sound.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

A test flight more than a decade in the making is scheduled to take place December 13 as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle is set to make its highest and fastest flight to date, one that, if all goes well, will take it beyond one boundary of space.

Related Articles