Virgin Galactic successfully launches tourism rocket ship into space for first time

Gwen Vasquez
December 18, 2018

When it crossed the 50-mile mark around 11:15 a.m. ET, it became the first human-piloted US commercial flight to leave the atmosphere since 2011.

Virgin Galactic is racing against other companies to send clients to space. It was an indescribable feeling: "joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come".

The company is squared up to compete directly with Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000 to offer suborbital tourism flights. Aboard were test pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and C.J Sturckow.

During a meeting with reporters here Wednesday afternoon, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said everything was looking good for the launch and that the team was ready for "all the novelty, excitement and risk that comes with a real test flight". "Ideally, we want to do three more flights before we go to New Mexico".

That altitude meets at least one definition of where space begins.

Virgin space tourist carrier
An artist’s impression of the Virgin SpaceShipTwo

Commercial airplanes typically fly at an altitude of about six miles, while the orbiting International Space Station is some 250 miles high. "At this altitude, a conventional plane would need to reach orbital velocity or risk falling back to Earth". An investigation found that human error - the braking system was triggered too early - and inadequate safety measures were to blame. The believed that the ship should have had better safeguards to protect against such mistakes.

Ahead of the flight they said: "Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS unity, is entering the next stage of testing".

Looking to the future after the successful flight, Branson talked about the possibility of using his space plane to link worldwide cities, offering orbital space flights, or potentially even building a Virgin hotel in space. Using a system similar to NASA's Pegasus rocket, a small rocket complete with payload will launch from a modified Boeing 747-400 airliner, the combo being called LauncherOne and Cosmic Girl, respectively. It then detaches from the plane, ignites its rocket engine and climbs. It reached this altitude-much greater than its previous record of 52 kilometers (32 miles)-by burning the rocket motor for 60 seconds, longer than it ever has in flight before.

The successful fourth test flight for the spacecraft marked a major comeback for Virgin Galactic after the fatal test flight of its spacecraft four years ago. We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.

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