Virgin Galactic's rocket plane reaches edge of space

Pat Wise
December 16, 2018

George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said after this flight that a full-duration burn would last approximately five seconds longer.

Virgin Galactic's program created to kick off space tourism has just reached another milestone with a flight that nearly reached the edge of space.

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic's first two astronauts.

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of hard testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.

The parent company of Virgin Galactic (Virgin) has another space-based venture in its wings: Virgin Orbit.

Virgin Galactic considers 80km the boundary of space because it is used by the U.S. airforce and other USA agencies.

Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!"

Virgin Galactic, which is focused on space tourism, aims to use SpaceShipTwo to take paying customers for a short journey to and from space.

Richard Branson center celebrates with pilots Rick "CJ" Sturckow, left, and Mark "Forger" Stucky, right, after Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday
Image The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday

The VSS Unity reached a top speed of over 1,530 miles per hour, or beyond Mach 2.

After arriving back at the test centre, the co-pilot, Mr Stucky, said: "It was a great flight".

"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here".

"If we have a very good day, we could potentially have the first space flight into space of Virgin Galactic, so that would be a big milestone from our personal company and then on a national level, I think this would be the first human spaceflight from American soil into space since the retirement of the USA space shuttle", stated George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic. Four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board its historic test flight as well as a test dummy, making the trip revenue-earning for the first time as well.

After reaching space, SpaceShipTwo began a descent slowed and stabilized by a unique "feathering" technology that temporarily rotates its twin tails upward to increase drag.

But there were significant setbacks. In October 2014, its spacecraft crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one of the pilots aboard and severely injuring the other.

Virgin Galactic's fourth flight test on the VSS Unity is scheduled for Thursday, weather permitting.

New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. The company marked a major milestone Thursday as Unity made it to a peak height of more than 51 miles, meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of spaceflight. Mr Bezos has also said Blue Origin plans to send its first crew to space in 2019. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.

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