Richard Branson’s space tourism dream took a major step forward Wednesday when Virgin Galactic completed what was touted as the first crewed spaceflight from US soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011.
The space plane VSS Unity reached the edge of space after a 60-second rocket burn saw it achieve an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.6km), above the 50-mile boundary for space recognized by the US Government.
It then re-entered the atmosphere at Mach 2.5 using its unique feathering configuration.
The spaceship had earlier taken off attached to mothership WhiteKnightTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Branson said the fourth test flight by pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow had seen the company’s biggest dream and toughest challenge to date fulfilled.
“It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is Yet to come,’’ the British billionaire said.
“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space.
“ Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings.
“Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”
Reflections on @virgingalactic’s first space flight & the momentous achievement of a crewed spaceship, built to carry private paying passengers, reaching space for the first time ever https://t.co/hHk8ZsF8Kn pic.twitter.com/qtN8cy7kdb
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) December 14, 2018
Virgin galactic’s 14-year journey was marred by tragedy in 2014 when the VSS Enterprise broke apart, killing one pilot and injuring another.
It is also not the only project directed at space tourism with Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also looking at suborbital flights.
Branson said Virgin Galactic would push on with the rest of its test flight program, which would see a longer rocket burn that would propel VSS Unity faster.
He said this would move towards giving thousands of private astronauts “an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos”.
Watch a short video clip:
SpaceShipTwo looking back on Spaceship Earth 🌎 pic.twitter.com/ynr31mKzzf
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said the flight was compelling evidence that commercial space was set to become one of the 21st century’s defining industries.
“Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine,’’ he said.
“ New enterprises are being created which will become hugely valuable while enabling humanity to better manage some of its greatest future challenges.”
The US Federal Aviation Administration, which has to certify the space flights, commended the company’s successful test flight and return to space.
“The FAA is committed to helping ensure commercial space transportation grows safely,’’ it said.
“We are pleased that Virgin Galactic is among the many pioneers of space flight helping write a new chapter in aerospace history.
NASA, which had four technology payloads on board the flight, also congratulated Virgin Galactic.
“With a good rocket motor burn, the mission went beyond the 50-mile altitude target,’’ it said.
The suborbital flight was below the 1000km boundary of space currently used by the World Air Sports Federation but above the 80km limit favored by a number of scientists.