The flight was the first launch of a spacecraft, from the United States soil with humans on board, to reach the edge of space (50 miles high). The test flight was also the first time Richard Branson's space tourism startup has gone more than 50 miles above the Earth.
This launch earned both the pilots commercial astronaut wings from the US government and put Virgin Galactic on track to become the first private company in the world to take paying customers to space. The launch has huge implications for a growing industry aiming to fly civilians on a regular basis.
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two arrived at the edge of space on Thursday, December 13, 2018, where the atmosphere doesn’t abruptly end but thins out gradually.
The craft’s maximum altitude of 51.4 miles was lower than the 100 kilometers (62-mile) limit set by the Ansari X prize back in 2004. (This was won by Spaceship One, then of Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which maxed out at 69.7 miles). The successful flight of that craft, Spaceship One, was heralded as the start of an age of commercial human spaceflight.
But in the following years, that promise soon faded. Commercial flights did not materialize amid setbacks in the industry, including the fatal crash of a previous Spaceship Two in 2014. Spaceship Two topped out at an altitude of 51.4 miles, just surpassing the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of where space begins but lower than the widely accepted boundary of 62 miles. The craft, Spaceship Two, soared at speeds topping out at 2.9 times the speed of sound — around 2,200 miles per hour — through nearly three layers of the Earth’s atmosphere to reach space, the company said.
Thursday’s accomplishment gave Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started Virgin Galactic in 2004, the objective of ferrying tourists on short flights into space, a victory in the highly-competitive but elusive contest of commercial space tourism.
Spaceship Two had two people on board, both pilots in the cockpit, but carried research payloads that simulated the weight of carrying passengers.
Both NASA and the F.A.A. congratulated Virgin Galactic after its achievement. “This #FAA-licensed launch brings #America one step closer to realizing the dream of commercial human spaceflight,” the F.A.A. said on Twitter.
Meet the Pilots
For the pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, looming over the flight, was the memory of the tragic test flight in 2014. Virgin Galactic's first vehicle, Spaceship Two, ripped apart, mid-air, killing a co-pilot.
Stucky spoke to CNN Business after Thursday's successful firing of the rebuilt Spaceship Two called VSS Unity, to record heights at nearly three times the speed of sound. He said it was like taking a thoroughbred racehorse into a full gallop for the first time. "Before you can race her you have to train and walk her down uneven terrain, but eventually you have to say, maybe I should race her," he said. "That's what Unity reminded me of."
Mark "Forger" Stucky and Rick "CJ" Sturckow arrived at the flight line before Thursday's test. (Source: CNN)
Stucky, 60, and Sturckow, 57, have more than 15,000 hours of flying experience between them, they're both former marines and have known each other since the 1980s, but they've never worked together before joining Virgin Galactic. Their personalities are polar opposites. Stucky is verbose and charismatic, while Sturckow is known for his stoicism and intensity. When the men emerged from the VSS Unity, after their historic flight last week, they walked toward the crowd. Stucky broke into a sprint, bolting directly for the area where the pilots' family members were watching.
Richard Branson celebrates with pilots, Rick "CJ" Sturckow (left), and Mark "Forger" Stucky (right), after Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high. (Source: CNN)
"The overwhelming feeling is not anything about being an astronaut, it's about doing a good job and not letting the company down and not letting Richard down," Stucky said. He inferred that it was, in fact, about showing what all those people at Virgin Galactic had worked for was "more than just a vision."
Risks of the Space Travel Business
Aerospace companies face daunting risks because the history of human spaceflight is one of triumphs and tragedies. The deadliest was the Space Shuttle disasters of 1986 and 2003, each of which claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board.
There are indeed a lot of risks with this kind of company. However, it will not conduct such business, if the decision-makers of the organization do not have a worthy product.
The chief executive of the company, Mr. Whiteside, made an investment by purchasing tickets for himself and his wife. He stated, "If we don't take any risks, we're not going to advance." Whiteside also hopes that space tourism will set off a contagion of the "overview effect" — a phenomenon that astronauts have described as a profound shift in one's worldview after seeing the Earth from afar. "You look at climate change, or you look at certain peace and security issues, these are issues that cannot be handled just by one country or one city. They're issues that have to be handled at a really a global scale."
The Space Race Ahead!
Branson founded Galactic in 2004, around the same time Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two other deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, established space companies of their own. Musk, whose ultimate goal is to establish a human colony on Mars, is leading the charge with SpaceX. It has put more than 60 missions into orbit, without crews on board. Musk also plans to launch a trip around the moon in SpaceX's first tourism mission as soon as 2023. Both these companies want to adapt their spaceflight technology to shuttle people around the Earth.
Top Image: Spaceship Two (right) soon after it separated from a cargo plane that carried it to an altitude of about 43,000 feet. The rocket ship raced to Mach 2.9 before gliding into space, the company said. (Source: Gene Blevins/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)