MOJAVE, California. (Reuters) – A Virgin Galactic rocket plane on Friday rose to the edge of space with a test passenger for the first time, pushing British billionaire Richard Branson, the company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, who will lead future space tourists, came to the pilots on board SpaceShipTwo VSS Unit for the evaluation of the experience of the customer and the cab.
“There is a saying in aviation that the pilots have the best seat in the house, the view up there. But today, I’m not sure,” pilot David Mackay said after the flight, referring to what Moses could see and do.
The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft took off soon after 8 a.m. local time (11 a.m. ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The released the SpaceShipTwo passenger craft at a height of about 44,000 feet, and then the spacecraft was catapulted to 55 miles above the Earth.
The reusable SpaceShipTwo craft previously flew at a height of more than 51 km in December 2018, marking the first U.S. commercial human flight outside the atmosphere since the end of America’s shuttle program in 2011.
Hundreds of spectators, including Virgin Galactic ticket holders and CEO George Whitesides, gathered on a bright morning in the desert to watch this last test flight. The flight was postponed from Wednesday because of the wind.
“We’re in the 50th anniversary year of Apollo, and just as they do each step that we have to expand the envelope and do something more,” Whitesides told the crowd.
Moses, now the first woman to fly aboard a commercial space vehicle, called it an ” indescribable drive,” adding: “Richard, you’re going to love.”
Branson is a race against the competitors, such as Blue Origin, the space business of Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to bring tourists into space. Branson has said that he is planning to be the first passenger on SpaceShipTwo’s first commercial flight in mid-2019.
More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber has paid or deposits to fly on one of virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders are waiting for more than 14 years for their trip.
A 90-minute flight, so the passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth, the cost of $250,000. Whitesides said that he expected that the price would initially increase before they go down.
After he founded the company in 2004, Branson’s ambitious timetable for taking customers in the area suffered delays and a fatal setback when the original SpaceShipTwo crashed on a test flight in 2014 death of the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot.
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The company’s last two test flights mark the only time a manned spaceship built to carry passengers has reached what NASA defines as the boundary of the space.
Bezos’ New Shepard rocket has all the Karman line, an internationally recognized space boundary of 62 miles above the Earth and a higher point than that reached by SpaceShipTwo, but as Blue Origin of the trips is not with the man.
SpaceX, that is sailing cargo to and from the International Space Station for NASA, is also aiming to break into the space tourism. Last year appointed Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa as the first customer on a trip around the moon, tentatively scheduled for 2023.
Edited by Edward Tobin