Sir Richard Branson’s latest test flight to launch Virgin Galactic into space has been a success.
The firm’s SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of 82.7km. Outer space is said to begin at the Kármán line, a boundary at an altitude of 100 km. The United States awards astronaut wings to professional, military and commercial astronauts who travel above 80 km.
The flight was the aircraft’s fourth test flight. It comes 10 years after Virgin Galactic first promised commercial space flight “within 18 months” back in 2008, following earlier setbacks in its space programme.
Delays and a fatal crash in 2014 also stalled Branson’s ambitions.
There is fierce competition to be the first firm to fly commercial passengers to space, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin sharing this goal. SpaceX is working with NASA to launch crewed missions early next year, while Bezos has said Blue Origin plans to send its first crew to space in 2019.
Branson said: “Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally. Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder. We started Virgin nearly 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge.
“Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.
“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space. We completed our first revenue-generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings. We have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test programme, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.
“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.”
More than 600 people have bought tickets or put down deposits for a future voyage, which costs $250,000 for a 90-minute flight.