Though it just scratched the lowest edge of where many believe space begins, the launch had huge implications for a growing industry aiming to fly civilians on a regular basis. The flight was bold and risky, and following a fatal crash from four years ago, reminiscent in its daring of a bygone era of human spaceflight.
It comes at a time when NASA is still forced to rely on Russia to fly its astronauts to orbit and faces criticism that its aversion to risk has replaced the youthful audacity that helped it put men on the moon.
With the flight — taking place on a chilly morning shortly after sunrise — Virgin can claim an edge in the race for human spaceflight, as a number of companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing, work to develop spacecraft capable of flying people.
With two seasoned pilots in the cockpit — Mark “Forger” Stucky and C.J. Sturckow — the vehicle known as SpaceShipTwo was ferried to an altitude of about 43,000 feet by a mother ship. Like a bomb, the spacecraft was released into a free fall before the pilot ignited the engine, propelling the spaceplane faster than the speed of sound.
Soon, the vehicle pointed almost straight up, as it streaked through the same skies over the California desert where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. The spacecraft reached a height of 51.4 miles, hitting a top speed of Mach 2.9, before descending and returning the company’s space port in Mojave.
Virgin Galactic's carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, with space tourism rocket plane SpaceShipTwo attached, takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif. (Handout/Reuters)
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo test flight reaches space
On the ground, a gaggle of press, space enthusiasts, including Branson and his guests watched the flight, tilting their heads skyward. Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket, hugged his son as the spacecraft raced upward and a commentator called out the altitude.
“It’s been 14 long years to get here. We’ve had tears, real tears, and moments of joy. So the tears today were tears of joy,” he told reporters afterward. “It was maybe tears of relief as well. When you are in the test flight program of a space company you can never be completely 100 percent sure.”
Stucky, the pilot in command for the mission, said it went as smoothly as it could have — and well enough for him to perform a victory barrel roll as the spacecraft returned to Earth.
“That was rather incredible,” he said. Seeing “the dark sky was great. Everything just worked great. ...We had tons of extra propellant. Had plenty of time to look around.”
Virgin Galactic has nearly 700 people who have paid as much as $250,000 for its suborbital joyrides — more than the 560 or so people who have ever been to space. Eventually the company wants to fly six passengers at a time. The FAA plans to formally honor the pilots of Thursday’s flight by awarding them commercial astronaut wings at a ceremony in Washington next year.
For Branson, the launch was the culmination of years’ worth of lofty dreams and tragic setbacks as he sought to build what he calls “the world’s first commercial spaceline.” He founded Virgin Galactic after buying the rights in 2004 to the technology behind SpaceShipOne, the spacecraft funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that made it to the edge of space three times that year, winning the $10 million Ansari X prize and becoming the first privately funded vehicle to fly humans to space.
Thursday’s launch was also a major milestone for a growing commercial space industry, which for all its triumphs has yet to show it can routinely fly humans into space. But that may soon change.
Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, also plans to fly tourists, though to a higher altitude and with a rocket that launches vertically, not a spaceplane. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Its first test flights with humans on board are scheduled for next year.
SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, and Boeing are under contract with NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, the orbiting laboratory, as early as next year.
As the plight of Virgin Galactic shows, ending government’s long-held monopoly on human spaceflight has been difficult. 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.
But years passed, the program suffered delay after delay and in 2014, a fatal setback: The spacecraft came apart midflight, killing Michael Alsbury, the pilot.
As federal investigators probed what caused the crash, Branson pondered whether to continue, ultimately vowing to press on.
In 2016, he unveiled a new spaceplane, dubbed Unity, and the company started its test program again, slowly pushing the envelope on test flight after test flight. Thursday’s flight was a key milestone that the company says will push it closer to flying tourists from Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s futuristic launch facility in New Mexico.
Branson said he has invested nearly $1 billion of his own money into the venture. “Space is not cheap,” he said.
Now Virgin is looking forward to selling more tickets and making the company commercially viable, he said. Once the test program is finished, he said the operation will move next year to Spaceport America, the futuristic facility in New Mexico where it intends to fly its tourist flights. Branson has said he intends to be on the first commercial flight.
The company is now building two more spaceships in anticipation of the price coming down and more people signing up to fly.
Virgin’s ultimate goal is to build spaceports around the globe, “and we’re operating multiple times a week at each one of those and enabling tens of thousands of people to experience space,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, said in a recent interview.
Eventually, the company would like to turn those spaceports into “future hubs for a network of intercontinental transportation nodes” where the spaceships can transport people across the globe in a matter of hours.
In the long term, the company wants to fly “into major airports because we have a winged vehicle that can integrate smoothly in traffic patterns,” Whitesides said.
That goal is still “many years out,” he said. “But that’s the evolution — so that at the end of it you’ve built up, step-by-step, a capability to go between continents in an hour or two.”