Sci-tech

Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

The company has identified 50 miles as the altitude for reaching space, as NASA and the U.S. Air Force award astronaut wings to those who exceed that altitude.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has successfully launched a tourism rocket plane into space for the first time. It was the first spacecraft with humans aboard to be launched from U.S. soil and reach space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked a milestone for the commercial space industry, which also includes companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Boeing.

Company officials have maintained they're emphasizing safety above all else as a previous test-flight back in 2014 crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing one of the pilots and injuring another. At a basic level, this flight will aim to fly higher and faster.

Its rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo, reached the edge of space Thursday for the first time, climbing to an altitude of 51.4 miles during a flight carrying test pilots.

"I hope we go to space today", he said ahead of liftoff.

Once the flight reached 30,000 feet, Virgin Galactic pilots performed a series of cabin checks.

As well as ballast to represent paying passengers (or "talking cargo" as one commercial pilot memorably described those sat at the back of the aircraft), NASA sent a number of technology experiments to take advantage of the extended period of micro-gravity achieved during the sub-orbital flight. "It's a day we've been waiting for for a long time".

It then detaches, fires up its engine and climbs.

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Virgin Galactic has almost 700 people who have paid as much as US$250,000 for its suborbital joyrides - more than the 560 or so people who have ever been to space.

The flight will take off from a spaceport in Mojave, California.

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.

Commercial airplanes typically fly at an altitude of about six miles, while the orbiting International Space Station is some 250 miles high.

Despite the long odds, Branson started his quest to open space to the masses with his typical bravado, vowing the company would soon be taking tourists by the hundreds on awe-inspiring jaunts to the cosmos.

"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here", Branson said.

Mr Whitesides said a review of the flight's data would last into the new year, and there would be more test flights. Branson has said he intends to be on the first commercial flight. So far, over 600 people have signed up for this unforgettable experience.

The founder has previously said his space tourism firm will hope to carry passengers beyond orbit next year - with him on the first flight. "It's that grit and innovation we want to recognize".


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