virgin galactic spaceshiptwo
Credits - CNN

Richard Branson-led Virgin Galactic successfully blasted a rocket plane to the edge of the space on Thursday after years of difficult testing. With the successful test flight, the US-based company has become the first commercial human flight firm to reach space since USA’s shuttle program ended in 2011.

British billionaire Richard Branson has been battling with several other billionaire-backed ventures to be the first to introduce suborbital flights commercially to tourists. Virgin Galactic’s aeroplane-looking SpaceShipTwo ignited on Thursday morning from California’s Mojave air and spaceport.

Wearing a leather jacket with a fur collar, Richard Branson attended the event and kept an eye on the flight with hundreds of other spectators in the California desert. The billionaire cried and high-fived spectators when the rocket plane reached a 50-mile altitude which is considered to be the edge of space.

Carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo released SpaceShipTwo shortly after reaching an altitude of 43,000 feet. After detaching from WhiteKnightTwo, the spaceplane fired its rocket motor and soon reached Mach 2.9. The rocket burnt for 60 seconds before being shut down, leaving the craft to coast to the top of its climb, reaching an altitude of 51.38 miles.

The original SpaceShipTwo crashed during its first test flight which killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the main pilot. After four years of the failure, London-based Virgin Group has achieved the heights that some speculated to be impossible.

“We’ve had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, told reporters.

The test flight had two pilots onboard along with four NASA research payloads. A mannequin named Annie was at the passenger’s seat loaded with sensors to get insights about how a real human passenger may react to reaching that high. After an hour of flight, the plane landed back safely. It reached a height of 51.4 miles and travelled at 2.9 times the speed of sound.

Hollywood-actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber have pre-booked to fly the Virgin’s suborbital flights along with other 600 people. A typical 90-minute flight will cost $250,000 for the passenger which may be reduced with as the technology develops.

Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is also keen to explore the space tourism industry with his company Blue Origin. The company’s New Shepard rocket is likely to start taking passengers on short sightseeing space trips at an expense of around $200,000 to $300,000. The test flights are likely to begin in 2019.

Several other firms are planning to explore the space tourism industry including Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch. SpaceX announced that Japan-based billionaire Yusaku Maezawa would be the company’s first passenger to travel to the moon on its Big Falcon Rocket scheduled for 2023.


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