Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo traveling in space. (Source: Virgin Galactic’s official Twitter handle)

Virgin Galactic Hits Space Goal in Step Toward Tourist Trips

(Bloomberg) -- Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft hit a milestone Thursday in its quest to fly tourists off planet, rising more than 51 miles (82 kilometers) and breaching Earth’s atmosphere for the first time.

The brief voyage marked the first human flight to the boundary of space by a commercial space operator. It also underscored the rebound from a fatal 2014 accident by the space tourism venture founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

Virgin’s VSS Unity had a 60-second rocket burn on its fourth test flight from Mojave, California. That sent the vehicle to an altitude of 271,268 feet (83 kilometers), above the 50-mile mark where the U.S. Air Force and other agencies define the edge of space. Another often-cited boundary is 62 miles (100 km), the so-called Karman line.

“What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the 21st century’s defining industries,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said in a statement. “Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine.”

Virgin Galactic Hits Space Goal in Step Toward Tourist Trips

Virgin Galactic’s previous flight, in July, rose to nearly 171,000 feet with a 42-second rocket burn.

The VSS Unity is dropped from a carrier aircraft at about 50,000 feet, at which point its rocket ignites and propels the vehicle on a vertical tear into the cosmos. At some point the company plans to fly customers who have paid as much as $500,000 for the thrill ride.

Virgin Galactic plans about three additional test flights before shifting to its spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Branson himself hopes to soar to space next year, the billionaire said in an interview with Bloomberg TV from the California desert.

After that, the spaceflights will be open to the first of the 700-or so paying customers, Branson said. They would experience weightlessness and peer at the curvature of the Earth, based on Virgin’s video of today’s flight.

Champagne Glasses

Branson reflected on beating fellow billionaires and space entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to put humans into space, if not orbit.

“The funny thing about races is people always say, ‘We’re not in a race’ until they actually win,” Branson said. “We can drink a couple of glasses of champagne to that tonight.”

The company also plans to restart marketing of the rides, which had been halted in the aftermath of the 2014 crash that killed a test pilot. Branson envisions a fleet of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo craft like the VSS Unity operating so frequently that costs fall to the point where space travel is widely affordable.

“It is a very very exciting time I think for investors investing in commercial space ship companies to do so,” Branson said. “The market we believe is enormous. Something like 80 people of people we research, if they could afford it and if they get offered a return ticket, would love to go to space and it’s up to us to do both.”

The flight was also Virgin Galactic’s first time to generate revenue, ferrying four research payloads as part of a program co-sponsored by NASA.

After the flight, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would award Unity’s test pilots, Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow, with commercial astronaut wings. Sturckow, a former space shuttle pilot, will become the only person to be awarded astronaut wings from both NASA and the FAA.

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