Richard Branson was right: Virgin Galactic have sent people into space before Christmas, just as he had announced in late November. SpaceShipTwo, which goes by the name of VSS Unity, reached an altitude of 82.7km on Thursday 13 December. The company was congratulated by NASA, which works on a regular basis with private operators such as Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic put a spaceliner into space for the first time on Thursday 13 December, the first crewed trip from US soil to the final frontier since 2011. The flight is a landmark achievement for the company run by British billionaire Richard Branson, who is aiming to take tourists into space at a cost of $250,000 per seat.
“A new chapter in space exploration”
The USA has not sent anyone into space since NASA grounded its space shuttle fleet seven years ago. Space agencies around the world have since depended on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). In the meantime, a booming space industry has seen a number of companies fight it out to become the first private operators to build craft capable of taking both astronauts and tourists into space.
Virgin Galactic has now taken an important step forward in this race, with its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft – named VSS Unity – having reached an altitude of 82.7km. “This is a momentous day, and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration,” said Branson in a press release. Virgin Galactic’s maiden commercial flight had been postponed several times, most notably when a co-pilot was killed in a 2014 test-flight accident.
VSS Unity did not take off from Earth but was launched by an aircraft from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The spacecraft’s two pilots then switched on its rocket motor for 60 seconds as it regained altitude. “Welcome to space,” the company tweeted. “We travelled at 2.9 Mach on the way up to today. That's 2.9 times the speed of sound..”
Congratulations from NASA
NASA paid Virgin Galactic to carry four technological and scientific experiments on board VSS Unity, making it the company’s first revenue-generating flight. “Congrats to @VirginGalactic on SpaceShipTwo successfully flying to suborbital space,” said NASA on Twitter.
Founded by Amazon’s billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, US company Blue Origin is set to become the first private operator to send passengers into space, albeit in a smaller rocket. Meanwhile, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are sending capsules containing food and supplies – but not astronauts – to the ISS. SpaceX and Boeing are planning to carry out their first manned test flights in 2019.
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