Branson 'wins space race' after successful Virgin Galactic flight

The VSS Unity was released from its carrier aircraft at an altitude of approximately 8 miles

The VSS Unity was released from its carrier aircraft at an altitude of approximately 8 miles

Virgin Galactic says its tourism spaceship has climbed more than 50 miles high, which the company considers the boundary of space.

The mission was piloted by Mark "Forger" Stucky and C.J Sturckow (as noted on NASASpaceFlight, Sturckow is no stranger to space having traveled there four times on board NASA's retired fleet of shuttles).

An exuberant Branson took the stage at the Mojave Air and Space Port here to congratulate the company and its employees for a successful test flight December 13 of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity, which reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers. According to launch officials, the rocket motor fired for 60 seconds, which was longer than any previous launches of SpaceShipTwo.

The rocket plane re-entered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

Sir Richard Branson's company launched a spacecraft more than 50 miles into the air Thursday, not reaching orbit but successfully meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of space, the Washington Post reports.

On this particular test flight, the company is also carrying along four unnamed payloads through NASA's Flight Opportunities program. "I've personally invested about a billion dollars in this project, so having our first money coming back is a good feeling.We've got to make this a profitable venture and I think we can make it a profitable venture".

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

These flights aren't the same as an orbital flight to space - which involves actually sending people around the Earth before coming back home.

The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday
Image The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday

Virgin Galactic hasn't said when it plans to begin commercial flights.

Virgin Galactic has more tests of VSS Unity planned before moving to Spaceport America in New Mexico where it will set up its tourism operation.

While critics point to Branson's unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin's first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen "in months and not years".

Today's launch of SpaceShipTwo was an enormous breakthrough in the push for privatized space travel, as well as for Virgin Group.

Virgin Galactic envisions SpaceShipTwo as a prolific research vehicle as well, and the spaceliner has already toted scientific experiments on its test flights. Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.

When asked about Virgin Galactic's competitors in a recent interview with CNN Business, Branson said it was not a "race".

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

After that, he said, they'll start putting into space "the hundreds of astronauts" who have signed up for the journey.

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