Virgin Galactic successfully launches tourism rocket ship into space for first time

Pablo Tucker
December 14, 2018

As VSS Unity returned to Earth, it fanned out a large tail that will guide the plane back through the Earth's atmosphere and toward Mojave for a runway landing.

According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released.

With two seasoned pilots in the cockpit - Mark "Forger" Stucky and C.J. Sturckow - the vehicle known as SpaceShipTwo was ferried to an altitude of about 43,000 feet (13,100 metres) by a mothership.

The spacecraft reached a height of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometres), hitting a top speed of Mach 2.9, before descending and returning the company's space port in Mojave.

"We are pleased that Virgin Galactic is among the many pioneers of space flight helping write a new chapter in aerospace history".

Virgin Galactic can argue in favor of its claim to reaching space.

Branson spoke to CBSN from California's Mojave Desert after Virgin Galactic got one step closer to sending tourists to space. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, almost three times the speed of sound. A special "feather" system is then used for reentry, wherein the craft folds its wings and behaves like a traditional space capsule until the air thickens again, at which time the wings unfold again and behave like a space plane, gliding back to Earth and landing on a landing strip.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he wanted to be one of the first on board. "The real limitation we're shooting for is an altitude", said Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, in a briefing with reporters here December 12. Virgin Galactic officials say recent research favors the lower number.

Over 600 people from more than 50 countries have reserved their places, at $250,000 dollars (£200,000) a seat, on the six-passenger rocket.

Virgin Galactic has said it would use the US Air Force's definition of space as its standard.

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.

In the meantime, a commercial space race is underway as companies rush to build spacecraft that can carry astronauts and tourists into microgravity.

It planned to "burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach a space altitude for the first time", it added. "Then I plan to go up into space", he said, noting he looks forward to that next year and is "very, very excited".

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

The successful spaceflight is something of a coup for Virgin Galactic, which has been competing with other commercial space ventures - Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin among them - in what is increasingly becoming a crowded field.

Virgin Galactic's first experimental spacecraft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

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