See Virgin Galactic's historic spaceflight

Watch as Virgin Galactic's supersonic space plane soars into space for a milestone test flight.

Posted: Dec 14, 2018 8:17 PM
Updated: Dec 14, 2018 8:24 PM

Virgin Galactic's supersonic space plane soared into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere Thursday for a milestone test flight. It indicates the company is not far off from sending tourists to space.

The rocket-powered plane, VSS Unity, was flown by two veteran pilots to a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles, surpassing the 50-mile mark that the US government recognizes as the edge of space.

The test flight took off from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California at 7:11 am PT.

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

"We made it to space," Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic's manufacturing partner, told a crowd of cheering spectators gathered at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California.

A visibly emotional Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, told reporters after the flight that it meant "myself and thousands of other people like me" could soon see space for themselves.

"We saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. How on Earth do I describe the feeling?" he said. "Today for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space."

It was the fourth powered test flight for VSS Unity and the closest yet to mimicking the flight path that it is expected to one day take on commercial missions. Its success means the company could be just months away from taking up its first load of tourists, a goal Virgin Galactic has worked toward since it was founded in 2004.

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the US military.

VSS Unity took off attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Then, about 43,000 feet in the air, VSS Unity's pilots commanded the plane's release. After a few seconds of coasting, VSS Unity's rocket engine fired on. It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at nearly three times the speed of sound.

VSS Unity's peak altitude of 51.4 miles is similar to what Virgin Galactic has planned for commercial flights. It's high enough to reach the US government's recognized definition of space, but not the 62-mile "Karman line" that is internationally recognized as the boundary.

But last month, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which maintains world records for spaceflight, said it was considering adopting a 50-mile definition based on "compelling" scientific research that was recently published.

The two pilots aboard VSS Unity on Thursday will be awarded commercial astronaut wings from the US Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space travel.

One VSS Unity pilot, Rick "CJ" Sturckow, already has his wings: A former Marine, Sturckow was a NASA astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions. It will be the first pair of wings awarded to VSS Unity's pilot in command, Mark "Forger" Stucky, a former Marine and test pilot for NASA and the US Air Force.

Stucky, beaming from an outdoor stage near the runway after returning from the test flight, said he'd been waiting for the moment "for decades."

First revenue-earning flight

In addition to the test pilots, a flight test dummy and four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board to help simulate the weight distribution of having passengers on board.

Bringing NASA on as a customer made Thursday's flight the first revenue-earning mission for Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic has been hungry for cash since Richard Branson announced he would no longer accept a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia. Branson shunned the money after learning about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in October.

Branson told reporters Thursday that "by being successful today, we hope to bring in one or two other investors."

"Space is not cheap," he said. "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."

Virgin Galactic has not said exactly when it plans to begin commercial flights. More tests are planned before the company will move operations down to New Mexico's Spaceport America and take up its first load of tourists. Branson plans to be the first passenger aboard VSS Unity.

He told CNN Business' Rachel Crane in a post-launch interview Thursday that he looks "forward to go up in maybe five, six months time."

Recovering from tragedy

Branson's space venture suffered a major setback in 2014 when its first supersonic plane, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

The tragedy spurred critics of space tourism who have deemed such projects irresponsibly risky. But Virgin Galactic bounced back.

The company is squared up to compete directly with Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000 to offer suborbital tourism flights.

Both companies are still in the testing phase. And Blue Origin — which plans to fly tourists on an automated, vertically launched rocket — has yet to conduct a crewed flight or begin selling tickets.

Virgin Galactic says about 600 people have reserved tickets, priced between $200,000 and $250,000, to ride aboard its supersonic plane. Some have waited over a decade for their shot.

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

"Safety's all that matters if you're putting people into space," he said.

Terre Haute
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 65°
Robinson
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 65°
Indianapolis
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 65°
Rockville
Overcast
62° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 62°
Casey
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 64°
Brazil
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 65°
Marshall
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 65°
Mostly sunny, dry and breezy
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

Latest Video

Image

Saturday Morning Forecast Update

Image

Barr-Reeve vs Loogootee 9-25-20 ITZ

Image

Harrison vs Vin Lin ITZ 9-25-20

Image

West Washington vs North Central ITZ 9-25-20

Image

Riverton Parke vs Cloverdale ITZ 9-25-20

Image

Linton vs North Daviess ITZ 9-25-20

Image

Indy Lutheran vs Northview ITZ 9-25-20

Image

OV vs Sullivan ITZ 9-25-20

Image

SP vs WV ITZ 9-25-20

Image

SV vs PH ITZ 9-25-20

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 286332

Reported Deaths: 8807
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook1422155194
DuPage17253557
Lake16733487
Will13803378
Kane12974326
St. Clair6487189
Winnebago5750149
Madison5565136
Champaign458320
McHenry4536118
Peoria341349
McLean324522
Rock Island293575
Kankakee270977
Unassigned2538244
Sangamon236744
Kendall197525
Tazewell169822
LaSalle168256
DeKalb155138
Macon148744
Coles143730
Williamson138344
Jackson125724
Clinton112920
Boone109523
Adams108210
Randolph93311
Effingham8581
Whiteside72620
Vermilion7184
Ogle6746
Grundy6595
Henry6565
Monroe65215
Morgan64723
Knox6403
Bureau62511
Jefferson58738
Macoupin5357
Marion5320
Christian52111
Franklin5203
Union51424
Stephenson5106
McDonough47515
Logan4591
Crawford4293
Woodford4216
Fayette4023
Cass39311
Jersey38915
Shelby3724
Livingston3716
Montgomery36213
Iroquois36119
Lee3601
Perry34515
Warren3272
Saline3194
Bond3135
Douglas3037
Wayne2695
Jo Daviess2572
Lawrence2522
Carroll2284
Greene21910
Moultrie2133
Cumberland2115
Hancock2063
Jasper2069
Richland2045
Washington2041
Pulaski1731
White1670
Fulton1620
Clark1582
Johnson1530
Wabash1501
Clay1490
Mason1401
Mercer1375
Piatt1370
Menard1241
Pike1231
Edgar1138
De Witt1121
Massac1072
Marshall1010
Ford1005
Scott770
Alexander761
Gallatin712
Hamilton680
Henderson660
Edwards640
Calhoun580
Putnam570
Brown560
Stark552
Schuyler490
Hardin390
Pope271
Out of IL40

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 115407

Reported Deaths: 3566
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion21196765
Lake10493323
Elkhart6528110
St. Joseph6392106
Allen6178202
Hamilton4848109
Vanderburgh360930
Hendricks2715123
Monroe256036
Tippecanoe239113
Johnson2305123
Clark221457
Porter213647
Delaware194262
Cass19419
Vigo182526
Madison164375
LaPorte142340
Floyd135862
Howard130563
Warrick128038
Kosciusko121617
Bartholomew116457
Marshall100824
Dubois96919
Boone96846
Hancock92143
Grant91934
Noble90832
Henry79826
Wayne75414
Jackson7499
Morgan71638
Shelby67229
Daviess66328
Dearborn66028
LaGrange63411
Clinton59914
Harrison57624
Putnam56412
Knox5159
Gibson5114
Lawrence51129
Montgomery50821
White48514
DeKalb47611
Decatur45839
Miami4353
Greene42435
Fayette42113
Jasper3942
Steuben3807
Scott37311
Sullivan33712
Posey3240
Jennings31312
Franklin30725
Clay3005
Ripley2968
Orange28824
Carroll27413
Whitley2707
Washington2651
Wabash2648
Starke2637
Adams2613
Wells2614
Jefferson2483
Spencer2413
Fulton2382
Huntington2363
Tipton22622
Perry22113
Randolph2167
Jay1800
Newton17311
Owen1681
Martin1640
Rush1554
Pike1471
Vermillion1280
Fountain1232
Blackford1193
Pulaski1131
Crawford1050
Brown1043
Parke962
Benton880
Ohio787
Union780
Switzerland690
Warren391
Unassigned0226