Virgin Galactic crew reaches edge of space in flight milestone
The first phase — getting to the Karman line at 80km above Earth — had Richard Branson in tears
Mojave — A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle programme ended in 2011.
The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
In the first steps before a high-altitude rocket launch, Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7am local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 145km north of Los Angeles.
Richard Branson attended the take-off along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert. After the rocket plane topped 80km altitude, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators.
The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 13.7km and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to at least 80km above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Virgin’s latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a US offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.
“We’ve had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.
Other firms planning a variety of passenger spacecraft include Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch
While critics point to Branson’s unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin’s first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen “in months and not years”.
Thursday’s full test flight will have two pilots onboard, four Nasa research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger. More than 600 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin’s sub-orbital missions, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.
Busy space sector
Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July. Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.
Other firms planning a variety of passenger spacecraft include Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch.
In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and CEO of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company’s first passenger on a voyage around the Moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.
Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, said the Big Falcon Rocket could conduct its first orbital flights in two to three years as part of his grand plan to shuttle passengers to the Moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars.
According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 13.7km by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to at least 50 miles (80.47 km) above Earth, high enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Bezos’s New Shepard has already flown 80km above Earth — an internationally recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space known as the Karman line — though the Blue Origin trip did not carry humans.
Virgin’s Thursday launch likely will not go as high as the Karman line. Virgin’s pilots are aiming to reach 80km into the sky — the US military and Nasa’s definition of the edge of space and high enough to earn commercial astronaut wings by the US Federal Aviation Administration.