Virgin Galactic took one giant leap yesterday as two test pilots flew its VSS Unity passenger rocket-ship to the edge of space for the first time.
Virgin Galactic says it has reached a rather lofty milestone. The International Space Station is about 200 miles above the planet. Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good ... It was an indescribable feeling: "joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come".
Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7 a.m. local time (10 a.m. ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles.
After successfully reaching space and then landing back on Earth, SpaceShipTwo is now the first craft to launch humans into space from USA soil since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
The two test pilots - Mark "Forger" Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick "CJ" Sturckow - will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, said Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards.
According to the statement, if the flight is successful the company will then "start simulating the commercial weight distribution in the spaceship represented by our future passengers".
In the long term, he said, the company wants to fly "into major airports because we have a winged vehicle that can integrate smoothly in traffic patterns", Whitesides said. 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.
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The 68-year-old had been emotional throughout the flight, shedding many tears and hugging his son Sam as it eventually made its way to space altitudes.
The flight was also Virgin Galactic's first time to generate revenue, ferrying four research payloads as part of a program co-sponsored by NASA. The believed that the ship should have had better safeguards to protect against such mistakes.
This flight does not mark the end of the test flight program for SpaceShipTwo. But Whitesides cited new research that favors the lower altitude and said that as a US company it will use the USA standard.
Unlike other rockets launched by NASA, Virgin's spacecraft does not make a vertical launch from a pad on the ground. Then, the VSS Unity activates its rockets to push itself even faster, turning upward at the same time. The pilots fired up the rocket for 30 seconds, keeping the nose pointed up, and reached Mach 1.87 before coasting to an altitude of 84,271 feet and gliding back to a landing.
Sir Richard Branson's space tourism plane has landed after successfully venturing into space altitudes.
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.