Branson: “Outer Space Is Virgin Territory””

Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship climbed more than 80km high above California’s Mojave Desert, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space. Space Tourism has arrived!

The rocket ship hit an altitude of 82km before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. It landed on a runway minutes later. “We made it to space!” Mr Palermo said. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship did not launch on a rocket but took off attached to an airplane from Mojave, California.

It surpassed the height the US Air Force considers the boundary of space (80km), and marks the first manned flight to space from US soil since 2011. The international community, however, considers the edge of space to be 100km.

The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic a big step closer to turning this dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

The brief, suborbital flight — with two pilots on board — was a key milestone for the company headed by British tycoon Richard Branson, who is striving to carry tourists to space at a cost of $US250,000 ($345,000) per seat. Branson has said he wants to be one of the first on board. “Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space,” he said in a statement.

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Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its fourth powered flight from Mojave,

Virgin Galactic considers 80km the boundary of space because it is used by the US airforce and other US agencies. That’s different than a long-held view that the boundary is at 100km. Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides noted that recent research favours the lower altitude.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 13,100m before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.

The two test pilots — Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow — will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, said Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards. “It was a great flight and I can’t wait to do it again,” said Mr Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.

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Virgin Galactic is ‘weeks away’ from sending one of its rockets into space

Virgin Galactic’s development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot. More than 600 people have committed up to $US250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below.

The endeavour began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.

Funded by the late billionaire Paul G. Allen and created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the $US10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was created to kickstart private development of rocket ships that would make spaceflight available to the public.

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Virgin Galactic ‘SpaceShipTwo’

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane reached space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first U.S. commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle program ended in 2012
When Branson licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, he envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers by 2007, launching them from a facility in southern New Mexico called Spaceport America.

But there were significant setbacks. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.


Richard Branson celebrates with pilots Rick Sturckow and Mark Forgera Stucky.

Richard Branson celebrates with pilots Rick Sturckow and Mark Forgera Stucky.

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique “feathering” system and it began to deploy. The co-pilot was killed but the injured pilot managed to survive a fall from high altitude with a parachute.

During descent, the craft’s twin tails are designed to rotate upward to slow it down, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway. New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. Its previous test flight reached 52km.

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