Kansas native pilots Virgin Galactic's supersonic plane into space

Pablo Tucker
December 18, 2018

After the test Virgin Galactic said: "Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it".

The milestone also means the company is closer to launching space tourists.

In July, after burning the rocket motor for 42 seconds, the VSS Unity reached a height of 32 miles. The US Air Force awards astronaut wings to pilots who top the 50-mile mark.

Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft over California's Mojave Desert early Thursday and ignited its rocket engine.

Besides VSS Unity, two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles are now under construction, with the first of them expected to be completed in about a year. A company statement says the next test flights aim to "reach a space altitude for the first time".

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. "Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled".

"That's a very exciting position to be in, and I feel some sense of responsibility to have it be successful on their inaugural flight", Colwell said.

However you measure it, though, the flight represents a triumph for Virgin Galactic - and a stark change from just over four years ago, when the company grabbed headlines for a very different, altogether tragic reason.

VSS Unity took off attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.

The jet will climb to an altitude near 43,000 feet and then release Virgin Space Ship Unity. The spaceship proceeded to fire its hybrid rocket motor for about 50 seconds or so, longer than any on any previous test runs. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

That's "space" by the US definition, which awards astronaut wings to anyone who goes above 50 miles.

But if all goes according to plan, the company said, "our pilots will experience an extended period of microgravity as SpaceShipTwo coasts to apogee, although they will remain securely strapped in throughout".

After that, he said, they'll start putting into space "the hundreds of astronauts" who have signed up for the journey. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.

In addition to the test pilots, a flight test dummy and four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board to help simulate the weight distribution of having passengers on board.

It has taken Virgin Galactic a while to get this point. Branson shunned the money after learning about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in October.

Other reports by iNewsToday