Virgin Galactic has taken another big step towards putting tourists in space. The company’s supersonic space plane reached the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere during a milestone test flight, making the two pilots on board the company’s first astronauts. This test flight is the closest yet to mimicking the flight path the company’s spacecraft are expected to take one day for commercial missions.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft Unity was piloted by two veteran pilots: Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “CJ” Sturckow. Stucky is a former Marine and test pilot for NASA and the US Air Force. Sturckow is also a former Marine and was a NASA astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions.
The spacecraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert attached to a jet-powered mothership. After reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, Unity was released and the crew used a 60-second burn to push the spacecraft to a speed of Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound. The spacecraft reached an altitude of 51.4 miles, or nearly 83 kilometers, before performing a slow backflip and gliding back to land at Mojave.
U.S. military and NASA pilots who have flown above 80 kilometers are considered to be astronauts. The pilots will receive commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space travel, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. early next year.
The Unity spacecraft was built by The Spaceship Company, which Virgin Group founder Richard Branson also owns. Branson said after the flight, “This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration.” Branson plans to be the first passenger aboard Unity once it has been cleared for commercial flights.
The successful test indicates Virgin Galactic is not that far from sending tourists to space, a goal the company has been working towards since 2004. The company already has more than 600 would-be astronauts signed on to launch, all of them purchasing tickets priced between $200,000 and $250,000 per flight. Some of them have been waiting for more than a decade for their trip to space.