Virgin Galactic rocket ship reaches space in test flight

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic’s first two astronauts

Virgin Galactic has continued its incremental test programme and a third flight in July cracked Mach 2 as pilots kept the rocket burning for 42 seconds, powering through the stratosphere to an apogee of 170,800 feet. The successful flight indicates the company is not far off from sending tourists to space.

The pilots hope to fly the rocket ship to an altitude exceeding 50 miles (80 kilometers), which Virgin Galactic considers the boundary of space.

This May 29, 2018 photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows the VSS Unity craft during a supersonic flight test.

Virgin's billionaire founder Sir Richard cried, high-fived and hugged spectators, as hundreds of the firm's employees and family members watched the launch.

The company planned to burn the rockets for about 50 seconds, not to their full capacity but enough to send the spacecraft and its two pilots to the edge of space. Dubbed VSS Unity it took off from the runway attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.

The VSS Unity is a SpaceShipTwo air-launched rocket plane that has been designed specifically for commercial use.

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 flight was the fourth rocket-powered test mission of VSS Unity, which Virgin Galactic officially unveiled in February 2016.

Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018
Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018

Virgin Galactic's first experimental spacecraft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on suborbital trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

"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.

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. Some have waited over a decade for their shot.

"The real limitation we're shooting for is an altitude", said Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, ahead of the launch, as reported by SpaceNews.

That day can not come soon enough for Mercury 13 candidate Wally Funk, who booked her flight on Branson's dream machine back in 2012 and at 79 might finally get a chance to go to space.

A test flight more than a decade in the making is scheduled to take place December 13 as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle is set to make its highest and fastest flight to date, one that, if all goes well, will take it beyond one boundary of space.

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