Space tourism possibilities just got a little bit closer to reality. Virgin Galactic, the commercial space-travel company founded by Richard Branson, completed a successful test flight this past week. Its spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California’s Mojave Desert on Thursday. The spaceship reached for the first time what Virgin Galactic considers the boundary of space.
“We made it to space!” exclaimed mission official Enrico Palermo. The rocket ship hit an altitude of 51 miles before beginning its gliding descent. It landed on a runway minutes later.
The company aims eventually to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. Branson says there will be more test flights first. If all goes well with those, then he will take a ride personally before the public gets its chance.
“I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space,” Branson says. He described Thursday as one of the best days of his life.
Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies. That’s different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.
At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. Two test pilots—Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow—were on board.
“It was a great flight and I can’t wait to do it again,” says Sturckow. He flew on the space shuttle four times.
More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a coveted “God’s-eye” view of the Earth far below. The spaceship will also be used for research: NASA had science experiments on the test flight.
(Virgin Galactic’s aircraft called VSS Unity, shown here, reached an altitude of 271,268 feet on Thursday in a successful test of reaching the boundary of space. AP Photo)