Virgin Galactic says it has successfully launched a tourism mission, sending a piloted SpaceShipTwo rocket into the skies over Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Two test pilots, Mark “Forger” Stucky and C.J. Sturckow, flew the vehicle to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers). That’s just above the Kármán line, the internationally accepted definition of the boundary between Earth and space. The mission marks the first time that a human spacecraft developed for the purpose of space tourism has achieved such an altitude.
The spacecraft, known as SpaceShipTwo or VSS Unity, was carried aloft by a carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, before being released at around 8:45 a.m. PDT (1545 GMT) over Mojave. It then ignited its hybrid rocket engine in a controlled burn that lasted about a minute and a half, powering it up to 3.5 times the speed of sound. After around four minutes of powered flight, the engine cut off and the pilots experienced a few minutes of “weightlessness,” before unresponsive descent back to Earth.
The successful mission is the culmination of more than a decade of hard work. Virgin Galactic, headed by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, promised that it would launch regular, commercial space flights as early as 2004. After various starts and stops, the company finally found success Monday.
Virgin Galactic plans to use the success of the mission to continue its progress in space tourism, with the goal of offering suborbital flights to its commercial passengers as soon as early 2020. The company has previously sold tickets to over 600 customers at prices beginning at $250,000. Passengers onboard SpaceShipTwo are expected to experience around five minutes of weightlessness.
The success of the mission serves as a testament to the progress of human technology and to human perseverance in achieving ambitious goals. It is now up to Virgin Galactic to ensure that this success is translated into a fully operational business, with successful launches regularly and safely transporting customers to the edge of space.