For the first time since the US retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, humans have taken off from American soil and gone into space. This morning, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocketed two test pilots beyond Earth's boundaries and brought them back safely, in a giant leap toward finally making commercial space tourism a reality.
The mission was Virgin Galactic’s fourth powered test flight of VSS Unity , the craft it expects to use to haul wealthy sightseers into space. The two pilots started their journey at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert, slung under the belly of Virgin's twin-hulled, carbon fiber launch vehicle, the VMS Eve .
Once they were 43,000 feet up, Eve released Unity , and the pilots in the latter powered the rockets for 60 seconds—longer than ever before—to shoot upwards at Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound. Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow climbed to 51.4 miles, 1.4 miles beyond the line the US Air Force uses to demark the edge of the planet. That's high enough to see the star-spotted black of space, as well as a pretty spectacular view of the Earth, as a video show from Unity shows:
To quote mission control: “ Unity , welcome to space.”
Unity then reentered the thick atmosphere at supersonic speed, in what the team calls a “feathering” configuration, with the tail folded for better aerodynamics. It then glided back to the the spaceport for a smooth landing, like the Shuttle used to. The touchdown met with cheers from anxious teams on the ground, as well as their families and a bunch of media crews. Along with its congratulations and assurance that it's down with space tourism, the FAA announced it will hold a ceremony in Washington to bestow Commercial Astronaut Wings on Stucky and Sturckow. (Stucky was also a Space Shuttle pilot; he'll be the first person to get his wings from both NASA and the FAA.) The craft was also carrying four NASA research experiments and a passenger-mimicking mannequin named Annie, according to the BBC .
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher,” Branson said in a statement after the landing.
When Virgin Galactic starts commercial operations, up to six passengers at a time will get three days of training and preparation at Spaceport America, in New Mexico, before take the trip, along with two pilots. Once at altitude, they’ll spend a few minutes in zero gravity, during which they’ll be allowed to unstrap and leave their seats. The company also plans to host (paid) space experiments, unbolting the seats and swapping in racks of kit.
Richard Branson companies are not creatively named, but they do cover a wide array of transportation schemes. Virgin Trains is the go-to rail service in the UK for trips from London northwards, Virgin Atlantic operates flights from the UK to the US and beyond. Now Virgin Galactic hopes to join the family as the go-to space ferry for paying customers who want a taste of the astronaut life.
Branson's tourism idea is rather conservative compared to plans from his fellow space-going tycoons. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently announced its first paying passengers would be a Japanese billionaire and a handful of artists of his choosing, who will slingshot around the moon, possibly by 2023. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is also planning short tourist flights, but in the long run wants to send rockets beyond Earth's orbit.
Virgin had originally planned to get to this point years earlier, but delayed its program when Unity's predecessor crashed in 2014, killing one pilot and injuring another. Now back in action and making real progress toward a commercial launch, it has a backlog of 600 people from 50 countries who have reserved places for a paid trip into space, and a look back at the Earth from a new perspective.
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