Virgin Galactic has reached suborbital space for the first time

Cristina Cross
December 18, 2018

The Virgin Galactic rocket plane, developed by British billionaire Richard Branson, climbed more than 80 kilometers above Earth, which the company considers the boundary of space. Competitors include Blue Origin - founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - and Elon Musk's SpaceX whose unmanned Falcon 9 rocket has brought supply to the International Space Station for NASA.

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

Virgin's VSS Unity suborbital spaceliner reached a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) during a rocket-powered test flight over California's Mojave Desert today (Dec. 13) after firing its hybrid rocket motor for 60 seconds, company representatives said.

The spacecraft with two test pilots, Mark (Forger) Stucky and Rick (CJ) Sturckow, at the controls quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground. We started Virgin almost 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge, Branson said via a company-issued release.

CEO George Whitesides says that's the standard used by the Air Force and other USA agencies.

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".

How well the VSS Unity performs will depend on how long it burns the rocket motor; during the previous flight, the rocket motor burned for 42 seconds and helped the vehicle reach a peak altitude of 52Km. "Sometime next year, once the testing is finished, then I'll do my flight", he said.

"It's been 14 long years to get here", Branson told reporters after the landmark flight.

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time
Virgin Galactic aims 'to reach space' on test flight

The two pilots will attempt to launch the craft on a supersonic flight to the edge of space for the first time.

Richard Branson, seen an in October 2018 photo, originally envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers to space by 2007.

When asked about Virgin Galactic's competitors in a recent interview with CNN Business, Branson said it was not a "race".

That day can not come soon enough for Mercury 13 candidate Wally Funk, who booked her flight on Branson's dream machine back in 2012 and at 79 might finally get a chance to go to space.

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the USA military.

Virgin Galactic has more tests of VSS Unity planned before moving to Spaceport America in New Mexico where it will set up its tourism operation.

"Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and created two new astronauts - well, one of them was already an astronaut but you know what I mean".

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