Virgin Galactic Completes Test of Spaceship to Carry Tourists

Virgin Galactic Completes Test of Spaceship to Carry Tourists

After successfully reaching space and then landing back on Earth, SpaceShipTwo is now the first craft to launch humans into space from US soil since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

With a first flight to the edge of space under the company's belt, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson believes commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo could begin some time next year.

Virgin Galactic says its tourism spaceship has climbed more than 80 kilometres high, which the company considers the boundary of space.

The flight marked the first time astronauts have launched from USA soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

Today, SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Unity, launched for space, attached to the WhiteKnightTwo mothership from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. So far, more than 600 people have ponied up some $250,000 for a 90-minute flight on one of Virgin's suborbital missions, including Justin Bieber and Citibike enthusiast Leonardo DiCaprio.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is gearing up to finally send its tourism rocket ship to the edge of space.

Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!"

Virgin space tourist carrier
An artist’s impression of the Virgin SpaceShipTwo

"SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space", Virgin Galactic representatives said via Twitter during today's flight. On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said that's the standard used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.

Thursday's test flight "saw a 60 second planned rocket motor burn which propelled VSS Unity to nearly three times the speed of sound and to an apogee of 51.4 miles", the company explained in its news release. In addition to the two pilots, SpaceShipTwo was also carrying a dummy to simulate a passenger and four unspecified research payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

The successful spaceflight is something of a coup for Virgin Galactic, which has been competing with other commercial space ventures - Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin among them - in what is increasingly becoming a crowded field. Branson shunned the money after learning about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in October. The planned sub-orbital lobs have been delayed repeatedly since the passenger-toting rocketplane's lavish unveiling back in 2009 and the firm has had to overcome a number of setbacks, including an incident that led to the inflight destruction of its predecessor in 2014 and the death of one of the two pilots onboard.

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the United States military.

Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July.

When asked about Virgin Galactic's competitors in a recent interview with CNN Business, Branson said it was not a "race".

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