Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship climbed more than 80 kilometres above California’s Mojave Desert in a test flight, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.
- The spaceship hit an altitude of 82 kilometres before landing on a runway
- More than 600 people have committed up to $346,000 to travel on the spaceship
- The six-passenger craft is about the size of an executive jet
The rocket ship hit an altitude of 82 kilometres before beginning its gliding descent, mission official Enrico Palermo said. It landed on a runway minutes later.
“We made it to space!” Mr Palermo said.
The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed 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.
Richard Branson (centre) celebrates with pilots Rick “CJ” Sturckow (left) and Mark “Forger” Stucky (right) after Virgin Galactic’s test flight. (AP: John Antczak)
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he wanted to be one of the first on board.
Mr Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring: “Space is Virgin territory!”
Virgin Galactic considers 80 kilometres the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the US Air Force and other US agencies. That is different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 100 kilometres.
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides noted that recent research favoured the lower altitude.
Mr Whitesides said a review of the flight’s data would last into the new year, and there would be more test flights. He would not estimate when commercial passenger trips might begin.
“This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we’ll see what that pathway is,” he said.
The Virgin Galactic spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound. (AP: Matt Hartman)
At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity (VSS Unity) flew to an altitude near 13,100 metres 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.
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 ($346,000) for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below.
Mr Branson is not alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on 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.