Tourism rocket ship reaches space on test flight

Branson

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic's space tourism rocket

Richard Branson addresses the crowd, moments after take off of Virgin Galactic's carrier airplane carrying a space tourism rocket plane toward space from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, U.S. on December 13.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has successfully launched a tourism rocket plane into space for the first time. It was an indescribable feeling: "joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come".

The spacecraft was piloted by Mark Stucky and former NASA astronaut Frederick "CJ" Sturckow.

During a meeting with reporters here Wednesday afternoon, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said everything was looking good for the launch and that the team was ready for "all the novelty, excitement and risk that comes with a real test flight".

VSS Unity
VSS Unity the Virgin Galactic space craft is hoped to be piloted into space for the first time on Thursday

Virgin Galactic considers 80 kilometres the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the US Air Force and other US agencies. "It's that grit and innovation we want to recognize".

The two pilots will attempt to launch the craft on a supersonic flight to the edge of space for the first time.

It should be noted that Virgin is using one measure of where space begins - but it's not the only one.

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked the "feathering" system and it began to deploy.

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New versions of SpaceShipTwo were built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing taken in-house.

The National Transportation Safety Board's months-long investigation into the incident ultimately concluded that it was caused by human error - though, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported at the time, "investigators found that SpaceShipTwo's design was also to blame".

The pilots of VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo-class space plane, returning from their trip to space.

In previous test flights, SpaceShipTwo flew to a peak altitude of 32 miles (52 km). Blue Origin will use the more traditional method of spacecraft attached to a rocket launched from the ground. It then detaches from the plane, ignites its rocket engine and climbs.

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After successfully reaching space and then landing back on Earth, SpaceShipTwo is now the first craft to launch humans into space from USA soil since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. They have been waiting years to feel the kick of the rocket's ignition, a near-vertical high-speed ascent into the blackness of space and several minutes of weightlessness with a view of the Earth far below. Branson plans to be the first passenger aboard VSS Unity.

At 51.4 miles high, VSS Unity reached the technical definition of space, earning its pilots commercial astronaut wings by the US Federal Aviation Administration, although the usual worldwide standard is the 62-mile "Karman line". The price for a single ticket runs up to a quarter of a million dollars.

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