After numerous setbacks, Virgin Galatic finally completed a successful mission with its SpaceShipTwo. The aircraft reached an altitude of 51.4 miles above the Earth—past the border between Earth’s atmosphere and space – in which NASA defines as 50 miles high. The flight occurred on December 13, marking a milestone in the company’s effort of launching passengers on space flights to altitudes capable of experiences weightlessness, while also viewing the curvature of the earth, and the pitch black sky full of stars. Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, the two pilots, were recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in an announcement which stated they will be awarded FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The SpaceShipTwo launched from the company’s base in Mojave, Calif., as a crowd of Virgin employees, company founder Branson, and the press watched it. The two ships flew together to 40,000 feet, whereupon the spaceship was released. From there, Robb Report states the crew then activated the rocket engine for 60 seconds, propelling the ship to a speed of Mach 2.9 (approaching 2,000 mph) and powering its climb past the atmosphere. The crew then turned the spaceship back towards Mojave, shortly after it passed the 50-mile mark, and glided it back down to the runway safely.
There were four space science and technology experiments from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program carried within the spaceship, establishing this as Virgin Galactic’s first revenue-generating flight. In addition, it became the first human spaceflight to be launched from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. The company is even building two more spaceships to help meet the anticipated passenger demand.
Though Branson was the first, it’s expected he will soon have competitors emerging in the private space market. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns Blue Origin, which is planning to fly tourists to a higher altitude than Virgin, launching from a vertically-launched rocket. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is also working with NASA under contract to fly astronauts tp the International Space Station (ISS) as early as next year.