Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight from Mojave, Calif. The aircraft called VSS Unity reached an altitude of 271,268 feet reaching the lower altitudes of space. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.

The rocket ship hit an altitude of 51 miles (82 kilometers) before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. It landed on a runway minutes later.

"We made it to space!" Palermo exclaimed.

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.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there will be more test flights and if all goes well he will take a ride before the public gets its chance.

"I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space," he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.

Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles (80 kilometers) the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies. That's different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles (100 kilometers). Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight from Mojave, Calif. The aircraft called VSS Unity reached an altitude of 271,268 feet reaching the lower altitudes of space. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

Whitesides said a review of the data from the test flight will last into the new year.

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

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) 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, Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards said.

"It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again," said Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
Richard Branson center celebrates with pilots Rick "CJ" Sturckow, left, and Mark "Forger" Stucky, right, after Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. The rocket ship reached an altitude of 51 miles (82 kilometers) before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. The craft landed on a runway minutes later. (AP Photo/John Antczak)

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.

"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here," Branson said. "This day is as much for them as it is for all of us."

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. The spaceship will also be used for research: NASA had science experiments on the test flight.

The endeavor began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.

Funded by the late billionaire Paul G. Allen and created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was created to kick-start private development of rocket ships that would make spaceflight available to the public.

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
A jet carrying Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship has taken off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018 in Mojave, Calif. The jet will climb to an altitude near 43,000 feet and then release Virgin Space Ship Unity. The pilots hope to fly the rocket ship to an altitude exceeding 50 miles (80 kilometers), which Virgin Galactic considers the boundary of space.

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.

But there were significant setbacks. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique "feathering" braking system and it began to deploy. The co-pilot was killed but the injured pilot managed to survive a fall from high altitude with a parachute.

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship sits on the runway after climbing more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. The rocket ship reached an altitude of 51 miles (82 kilometers) before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. The craft landed on a runway minutes later. (AP Photo/John Antczak)

During descent, the craft's twin tails are designed to rotate upward to slow it down then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.

New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. Its previous test flight reached 32 miles (52 kilometers).

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. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
Virgin Galactic lands after the spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. The rocket ship reached an altitude of 51 miles (82 kilometers) before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

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Dec 13, 2018
If at first you do not succeed, lower the bar.

Dec 13, 2018
Eikka, quite right. In my opinion, space travel definition is getting to a stable orbit, and going orbital for a few rotations, and decelerate to fall back. Ricky's lower bar is just a very high flying airplane (with huge technical difficulties).

Arguing how low is enough to count? To count for what, for a tourist's plaque on a wall: "Look at me! I got so high, it was almost vacuum!" My bet - the novelty will get old soon.

Musk aims much higher, and is already far beyond the Branson's optimistic goals!

Dec 13, 2018
So it is OK for rich people to amuse themselves orbiting the earth but if I drive to the corner store in my SUV I am killing the earth, right?

Dec 14, 2018
If at first you do not succeed, lower the bar.

The 100km Kármán line is only 100km because its a nice round number. Astronauts are awarded their wings at 83km...
Viriging will be doing mow powered tests with longer duration burns which will take them over 100km

Dec 14, 2018
space travel definition is getting to a stable orbit


It's actually harder to achieve an orbit at low altitudes because you need to be traveling much faster. Once you get higher up, it becomes easier to get higher up again. It's the first steps to orbit that are the tallest.

So counter-intuitively, achieving two orbits is easier than achieving one. You have to pass a threshold in your ability to generate delta-V in order to get to space, and then you're practically half-way to anywhere in the solar system.

That's also why sub-orbital hops like Virgin Galactic is doing isn't a road to progress. You can't sneak up gradually with small increments - you either build a rocket to go there, or you don't.

Dec 14, 2018
Who'd ever thought it?
mr666 actually posting a coherent, relevant & accurate comment!
Will wonders ever cease?

"... So it is OK for rich people to amuse themselves orbiting the earth but if I drive to the corner store in my SUV I am killing the earth, right? ..."

Yes, yes you are. You & billion other dolts driving to your corner store to get a pack of smokes & a twelve-pack of lite beer.

Cause you are all too fucking lazy to walk a block & back!

On that cheerful note of reality.

I am torn between wishing the best for all the people working, contributing to the Virgin Galactic projects.

Conflicting with a nasty desire that the celebrity boors & wealthy drones overflowing the seating, never return.

Yes, yes. I am an awful Human Being!

Dec 14, 2018
Cause you are all too fucking lazy to walk a block & back!


Nobody who likes their car drives a block and back - that's just killing the battery and the engine.

Starting and driving for a minute, then starting again and driving for a minute doesn't let the battery top up because the voltage difference between the alternator and the battery isn't large enough to drive a significant current. You end up with your battery never fully charged, which makes it wear out faster. Likewise with running the engine for such short times it never actually warms up.

Dec 14, 2018
Eikka, the bad news is?
How many people feel entitled to drive stupid.

The good news?
Amazon will soon be able to deliver beer & smokes directly using drones.

"Oh, Brave New World!"

Dec 14, 2018
Eikka, RR and even MR166;
I pay the penance and walk a mile and half in, get my smokes (and the occasional half-pint o Crown) and a mile and a half out.
Every day.
I'm in better shape than most 30 year olds… (who have their nice cars to drive to the store)

Dec 15, 2018
How many people feel entitled to drive stupid.


A stupid head taxes the entire body, including your back pocket.

People who do that ruin their vehicles, end up paying more and can afford less beer, cigarettes, or gasoline. People who don't neglect their vehicles end up with more money, which they then use to booze up and eat themselves fat, or buying unnecessary consumer goods, clothes, etc. which pollutes just as much.

How much money you got is how much resources you can use, so if you don't do one thing you'll probably do the other. That creates the counter-intuitive effect where increasing efficiency leads to increased consumption - Jevons' Paradox.

Also, why carbon taxes don't work: the government then spends the money somewhere else, the money ends up back with the consumers and nothing changes.

Dec 15, 2018
I'm in better shape than most 30 year olds… (who have their nice cars to drive to the store)


That's a bonus, but if you were really concerned about the environment, you'd ride a mobility scooter instead.

See, growing food for your legs makes more CO2 than the electricity for the scooter.

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