Virgin's SpaceShipTwo reaches space for first time

Muriel Hammond
December 14, 2018

A jet carrying Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship has taken off from a California airport on a test flight.

At the start of the flight, a special plane carrying the VSS Unity climbed to almost 13,700 meters before releasing the spaceship.

Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.

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.

Before the flight, Virgin Galactic said the aim of the plane, also known as the VSS Unity, would "aim to fly higher and faster".

Then, two pilots on the VSS Unity fire the engines toward the frontier of space, typically defined as an altitude of 100 km.

Thursday's test flight "saw a 60 second planned rocket motor burn which propelled VSS Unity to nearly three times the speed of sound and to an apogee of 51.4 miles", the company explained in its news release.

These flights aren't the same as an orbital flight to space - which involves actually sending people around the Earth before coming back home.

The US space agency paid Virgin Galactic to fly four space science and technology experiments on the VSS Unity, "making this Virgin Galactic's first revenue generating flight", the company added.

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

Once the flight reached 30,000 feet, Virgin Galactic pilots performed a series of cabin checks.

"The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting", Ryan Dibley, Flight Opportunities campaign manager at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, said in a statement.

"This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we'll see what that pathway is", he said.

New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. "Commercial space has great potential for American economic and innovative leadership", said FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell after the flight.

Branson isn't 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.

But years passed, the program suffered delay after delay and in 2014, a fatal setback: The spacecraft came apart mid-flight, killing Michael Alsbury, the pilot. We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration.

In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company's first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below.

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