Tourism rocket ship reaches space on test flight

VMS Unity

It then began its gliding descent back to the runway, said mission official Enrico Palermo.

No spacecraft with people on board has taken off from United States soil since the American space shuttle program ended, as scheduled, seven years ago.

The Virgin Galactic rocket plane, developed by British billionaire Richard Branson, climbed more than 80 kilometers above Earth, which the company considers the boundary of space.

Keep an eye on the skies, as Branson & Co. gear up to finally take their first trip to space.

As of October, Virgin Galactic was "more than tantalizingly close" to leaving Earth's atmosphere, according to Richard Branson.

Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!" That's about a mile and a half past what the US government recognizes as the edge of space.

That differs from a long-held view that places the boundary at 62 miles.

"SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space", Virgin Galactic tweeted.

Virgin's ultimate goal is to build a series of 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. He would not estimate when commercial passenger trips might begin. "Once we've gotten through that, we could start thinking about doing commercial flights", he said, not giving a specific number of test flights planned beyond "not a huge number".

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On Thursday, Virgin Galactic will launch its mothership - dubbed the White Knight T (WK2) - from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The rocket motor burnt for 60 seconds and the aircraft travelled at 2.9 times the speed of sound in today's test flight.

The achievement has been recognized by the FAA, which plans to award the flight's pilots in a ceremony next year.

"It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again", said Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times. "When you are in the test flight program of a space company, you can never be completely, 100 percent sure, because that's what a test flight program is", he said. The company received an abundance of criticism focused on whether the danger of space tourism made the rewards worthwhile, but after following recommendations set forth by the National Transportation Safety Board's report on the incident along with further design and safety enhancements, they forged ahead to make today's event a reality.

More than 600 people have already paid up to £200,000 to ride on the six-passenger rocket.

Funded by the late billionaire Paul G. Allen and created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the $US10 million Ansari X Prize.

But there were significant setbacks.

One pilot lost his life and another was seriously injured in 2014 after the SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight.

Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft and ignited its rocket engine.

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