Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo carried two test pilots out of the discernible atmosphere Thursday, the company's first piloted flight to the edge of space and a major milestone for Richard Branson's plans to eventually launch tourists on brief, sub-orbital trips to space.
It was the fourth non-government, purely commercial flight to carry pilots out of the lower atmosphere and into the realm of space, the first since 2004, and the first by any piloted spacecraft built in the United States since the space shuttle's final flight in 2011.
Did the crew make it all the way to space? The Air Force considers 50 miles up as the point where aerodynamic effects become insignificant and space begins. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 51.4 miles during Thursday's test flight.
Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rockets toward the edge of space during a test flight high above Mojave, Calif., Dec. 13, 2018.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the body that sanctions aerospace records, considers 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, as the boundary of space. By that standard, Virgin Galactic still has a way to go. However one counts it, Thursday's flight was a major achievement for Branson's space tourism program.
"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space," Branson said in a statement. "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 towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos."
Said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Co.: "What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century's defining industries. 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's SpaceShipTwo glides to a smooth landing in Mojave, Calif., after a flight to the edge of space.
Built by The Spaceship Co., Virgin's SpaceShipTwo rocketplane, also known as VSS Unity, was carried aloft from the Mojave Air and Space Port by a twin-fuselage carrier jet known as WhiteKnightTwo and released at an altitude of about 43,000 feet.
A few seconds later, at 11 a.m. EST (GMT-5), pilot Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow, a former space shuttle commander, ignited the spacecraft's hybrid rocket motor to begin a steep climb.