On Thursday the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, the USS Unity (N202VG) flew to an altitude of 269,280 feet, or 51 miles, Mission Official official Enrico Palermo said. The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there will be more test flights and if all goes well he will take a ride before the public gets its chance.
“I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space,” he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.
Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies. That’s different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.
At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet. Before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.