Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

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". Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he wants to be one of the first on board. The craft, known as the VSS Unity, took off attached to an airplane, then fired its rocket motors to reach new heights.

Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla, said the Big Falcon Rocket could conduct its first orbital flights in two to three years as part of his grand plan to shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars.

Once the flight reached 30,000 feet, Virgin Galactic pilots performed a series of cabin checks.

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.

Though it just scratched the lowest edge of where many believe space begins, the launch had huge implications for a growing industry aiming to fly civilians on a regular basis.

VSS Unity's peak altitude of 51.4 miles is similar to what Virgin Galactic has planned for commercial flights.

According to the company's Twitter, SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 82.68 kilometers (51.4 miles), just high enough to pass the definition the U.S. military and NASAhave set for the edge of space (and high enough for both pilots to get FAA commercial astronaut wings).

The plane carried the two pilots and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.

Branson said he has invested almost US$1 billion of his own money into the venture.

The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday
Image The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday

For Branson, the launch was the culmination of years' worth of lofty dreams and tragic setbacks as he sought to build what he calls "the world's first commercial spaceline". "Space is not cheap", he said.

Virgin's first flight date has been pushed back multiple times, following a test flight accident that killed a co-pilot in 2014.

As well as the higher altitudes, the company said they will also look to simulate the commercial weight distribution on the test flight in preparation for future passengers.

The tragedy spurred critics of space tourism who have deemed such projects irresponsibly risky.

Virgin Galactic says it has reached a rather lofty milestone.

"If we have a very good day, we could potentially have the first space flight into space of Virgin Galactic, so that would be a big milestone from our personal company and then on a national level, I think this would be the first human spaceflight from American soil into space since the retirement of the USA space shuttle", stated George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

Both companies are still in the testing phase.

Unlike other rockets launched by NASA, Virgin's spacecraft does not make a vertical launch from a pad on the ground. Some have waited over a decade for their shot.

"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space", Branson said in a statement afterward.

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