Virgin Galactic’s supersonic space plane soared into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere Thursday for a milestone flight. The successful flight indicates the company is not far off from sending tourists to space.
The rocket-powered plane, VSS Unity, was flown by two veteran pilots to a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles, surpassing the 50-mile mark that the US government recognizes as the edge of space. It uses the 50-mile mark to award astronaut wings.
“I hope we go to space today,” he said ahead of liftoff.
It was the fourth powered test flight for VSS Unity and the closest yet to mimicking the flight path that it is expected to one day take on commercial missions. Its success means the company could be just months away from taking up its first load of tourists, a goal Virgin Galactic has worked toward for 14 years.
More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. They have been waiting years to feel the kick of the rocket’s ignition, a near-vertical high-speed ascent into the blackness of space and several minutes of weightlessness with a view of the Earth far below.
The spaceship isn’t launched from the ground but is carried beneath a special plane to an altitude around 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). It then detaches from the plane, ignites its rocket engine and climbs. The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb — and then begins a descent slowed and stabilized by unique “feathering” technology. The twin tails temporarily rotate upward to increase drag, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.
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. Branson’s goal: Open up space travel to more and more people.
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.
Branson isn’t alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on suborbital 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.
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 the “feathering” 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.
New versions of SpaceShipTwo were built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing taken in-house. VSS Unity has made three rocket-powered supersonic test flights so far.