Virgin Galactic celebrates as tourism rocket ship reaches space

As for VSS Unity itself, Virgin Galactic confirmed at 16:14 UTC that the spacecraft had landed safely at Mojave Airport, a little over 10 minutes after touching space.

Sir Richard is in a race with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to send the first fee-paying passengers into space.

Virgin Galactic considers 80km the boundary of space because it is used by the United States airforce and other U.S. agencies. That differs from a long-held view that the boundary is reached at 100 kilometers.

"The real limitation we're shooting for is an altitude", said Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, ahead of the launch, as reported by SpaceNews.

The jet will climb to an altitude near 43,000 feet and then release Virgin Space Ship Unity.

The spacecraft with two test pilots at the controls quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground.

It added: "We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time".

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.

The pilot, Mr Sturckow, said: "It was a great flight and I look forward to doing it again". The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, almost three times the speed of sound.

The rocket carried two pilots and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger, as well as four research experiments for NASA.

This May 29, 2018 photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows the VSS Unity craft during a supersonic flight test.

"SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space", Virgin Galactic representatives said via Twitter during today's flight.

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

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the United States military. Famous people including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and music star Justin Bieber are among them.

These flights aren't the same as an orbital flight to space - which involves actually sending people around the Earth before coming back home. It was the first spacecraft with humans aboard to be launched from U.S. soil and reach space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked a milestone for the commercial space industry, which also includes companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Boeing. And Blue Origin - which plans to fly tourists on an automated, vertically launched rocket - has yet to conduct a crewed flight or begin selling tickets.

  • Joey Payne