Virgin Galactic’s Supersonic Space Plane Reaches Space in Test Flight

Virgin Galactic’s supersonic space plane soared into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere Thursday for a milestone test flight. It indicates the company is not far off from sending tourists to space.

The rocket-powered plane, VSS Unity, was flown by two veteran pilots to a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles, surpassing the 50-mile mark that the US government recognizes as the edge of space.

The test flight took off from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California at 7:11 am PT.

Just after 8:00 am PT, VSS Unity detached from the mothership and lit its rocket engine, swooping directly upward.

“We made it to space,” Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing partner, told a crowd of cheering spectators gathered at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California.

A visibly emotional Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, told reporters after the flight that it meant “myself and thousands of other people like me” could soon see space for themselves.

“We saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. How on Earth do I describe the feeling?” he said. “Today for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space.”

It was the fourth powered test flight for VSS Unity and the closest yet to mimicking the flight path that it is expected to one day take on commercial missions. Its success means the company could be just months away from taking up its first load of tourists, a goal Virgin Galactic has worked toward since it was founded in 2004.

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 US military.

VSS Unity took off attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Then, about 43,000 feet in the air, VSS Unity’s pilots commanded the plane’s release. After a few seconds of coasting, VSS Unity’s rocket engine fired on. It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at nearly three times the speed of sound.

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SOURCE: CNN, Jackie Wattles