Virgin Galactic's rocket plane reaches edge of space

Virgin Galactic's rocket plane reaches edge of space

With a first flight to the edge of space under the company's belt, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson believes commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo could begin some time next year. Taking that into consideration, Virgin recognizes today's mission as the first true crewed spaceflight from American soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011.

That differs from a long-held view that places the boundary at 62 miles.

The SpaceShipTwo after flying to space. There, it's released before igniting its rocket engine and climbing.

VSS Unity takes to the skies for her first Spaceflight.

We started Virgin almost 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge, Branson said via a company-issued release.

Stucky, the pilot in command for the mission, said it went as smoothly as it could have -and well enough for him to perform a victory barrell roll as the spacecraft returned to Earth."That was rather incredible", he said. Everything just worked great. The achievement has been recognized by the FAA, which plans to award the flight's pilots in a ceremony next year.

Virgin Galactic's supersonic space plane soared into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere Thursday for a milestone test flight. This success brings the company one step closer to civilian tourist trips, something Branson hopes to achieve as early as 2019. But that may soon change.

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.

The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday
Image The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday

After that, the spaceflights will be open to the first of the 700-or so paying customers, Branson said.

Commerciaaeroplaneses typically fly at an altitude of about six miles.

As the plight of Virgin Galactic shows, ending government's long-held monopoly on human spaceflight has been hard.

After that, he said, they'll start putting into space "the hundreds of astronauts" who have signed up for the journey. The planned sub-orbital lobs have been delayed repeatedly since the passenger-toting rocketplane's lavish unveiling back in 2009 and the firm has had to overcome a number of setbacks, including an incident that led to the inflight destruction of its predecessor in 2014 and the death of one of the two pilots onboard.

As federal investigators investigated the crash, Branson pondered whether to continue, ultimately vowing to press on. "I've personally invested about a billion dollars into this project".

Now Virgin is looking forward to selling more tickets and making the company commercially viable, he said.

Virgin Galactic has continued its incremental test programme and a third flight in July cracked Mach 2 as pilots kept the rocket burning for 42 seconds, powering through the stratosphere to an apogee of 170,800 feet. 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.

Another US rocket company, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is also racing to be the first to send tourists to space, but using a small rocket to get there.

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