Virgin Galactic aims to reach space with tourism rocket

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

The company considers the altitude to be the boundary of space, which contradicts a long-held view that it is reached at 62 miles (100km).

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity (VSS Unity) flew to an altitude near 13,100 metres before releasing the craft.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a star-studded list of supporters were on the ground cheering on the mission throughout the daring flight.

According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. It has also earned the plane's pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world", he said.

Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Mr Branson described as "a relief".

The rocket-propelled plane then re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 2.9 times the speed of sound and landing safely on a runway in California's Mojave Desert.

Virgin's ultimate goal is to build a series of spaceports around the globe, "and we're operating multiple times a week at each one of those and enabling tens of thousands of people to experience space", George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said in a recent interview.

Virgin Galactic says it has reached a rather lofty milestone. That said, the lower altitude of VSS Unity also provides an opportunity for research, serving the dual-purpose of science and recreation. The successful flight indicates the company is not far off from sending tourists to space.

"That's a very exciting position to be in, and I feel some sense of responsibility to have it be successful on their inaugural flight", Colwell said.

Over 600 people from more than 50 countries have reserved their places, at $250,000 dollars (£200,000) a seat, on the six-passenger rocket.

Virgin Galactic has almost 700 people who have paid as much as US$250,000 for its suborbital joyrides - more than the 560 or so people who have ever been to space.

The test flight is scheduled to begin at around 10 a.m.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

Based on the success of Thursday's launch, Virgin Galactic plans to move ahead with full-duration burns of the SpaceShipTwo rocket, about 60 seconds.

Virgin Galactic's first experimental spacecraft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot. A typical NASA "sounding rocket", a small rocket generally launched with equipment on board to take measurements and scientific experiments during an approximately 30-minute sub-orbital flight only, reaches anywhere from 30-80 miles above the Earth.

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