Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, created history on Thursday (Dec 13) when it launched its VSS Unity spacecraft higher than ever before.
It also marked the first crewed spaceflight from US soil since NASA’s Space Shuttle program was scrapped in 2011.
At the launch site, along with the battery of reporters, guests, and spectators, stood the man himself in a leather bomber jacket – the man who had a lot riding on the spacecraft, both literally and figuratively.
No sooner had the spacecraft hit its apogee at 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) Branson was seen hugging his son in obvious elation.
“It’s been 14 long years to get here. We’ve had tears, real tears, and moments of joy,” he later told reporters.
“So the tears today were tears of joy,” said a visibly relieved and happy Branson, adding that they were “maybe tears of relief as well.”
He also said: “When you are in the test flight program of a space company you can never be completely 100 percent sure.”
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) December 13, 2018
While VSS Unity can be said to have technically made it to space according to the United States Air Force-defined space boundary, it was about eleven miles short of a more commonly accepted international definition that sets the space edge at 100 km (62.13 miles) – known as the Kármán line.
So, it’s pretty much obvious why Virgin Galactic said it would go by the USAF definition of the beginning of space.
Victory roll for SpaceShipTwo. Planned test point and mission accomplished pic.twitter.com/3dI1fipoCW
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
“What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the 21st century’s defining industries,” Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company CEO George Whitesides said.
“Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine,” Whitesides said.
The SpaceShip Two-class spacecraft, which may someday carry paying passengers to space, took off into a nippy early morning sky from the company’s Mojave Air and Space Port, attached to a larger twin-fuselage mothership.
No sooner had the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, also known as the VMS Eve, dropped the VSS Unity into a freefall at 45,000 feet, the spaceplane fired its hybrid rocket engines, accelerating into a vertical ascent as it hit a supersonic peak speed of Mach 2.9.
Manning the cockpit were veteran pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and C.J. Sturckow as the spacecraft proceeded on its ballistic trajectory.
After reaching the highest point in its flight, or apogee, the VSS Unity went into a high drag aerodynamic maneuver called ‘feathering’ to rotate the twin booms to a descent trajectory for re-entry, locking them back into place before landing smoothly on the spaceport runway.
Both pilots earned their astronaut wings for surpassing the 50-mile benchmark set by the United States Air Force, NASA and now the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).
“Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good,” Branson said in a statement.
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, 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,” stated the billionaire-founder of the Virgin Group.
The Thursday flight saw Virgin Galactic achieve another first, in that it flew four paid space science and technology experiments for NASA, making it the company’s first revenue generating flight.”
Congrats to @VirginGalactic on SpaceShipTwo successfully flying to suborbital space with our four @NASA_Technology payloads onboard. With a good rocket motor burn, the mission went beyond the 50-mile altitude target. Learn more about our tech onboard: https://t.co/CnVFu1eSQz https://t.co/D1AhE1Uzxm
— NASA (@NASA) December 13, 2018
Though still not there, Virgin Galactic has come a long way since the fatal disintegration of the company’s previous SpaceShip Two-class spacecraft in 2014.
Yes, a lot has changed since that fateful October day, which saw the VSS Enterprise break apart mid-flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring flight commander Peter Siebold.
Investigations revealed that a design glitch allowed Alsbury to prematurely unlock the space plane’s “feathering” system, losing the spacecraft and his life for the error.
What has not changed, though, are the basics of the company’s flight pattern, which goes like this:
- A jet-powered WhiteKnightTwo class carrier plane (VMS Eve) takes off, carrying the SpaceShipTwo space vehicle (VSS Unity)
- The mothership drops it into a bomb-like freefall from an altitude of 45,000 feet
- The spacecraft fires up its rocket-powered engines, accelerating to top speed on its way to its apogee
- Deploys the ‘feathering’ system for descent and re-entry, before landing alike any other conventional aircraft.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, earlier this year, Branson said that he was looking forward to traveling aboard the VSS Unity himself, in about a year, or so, and was undergoing physical training in preparation for the trip.
“I think over the next 12 months I hope to become an astronaut, and I think we’ve got a very exciting time ahead,” he had said at the time.
Branson acknowledged in the interview that Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin – which has successfully launched its New Shephard rockets on several test missions– was indeed Virgin Galactic’s competition.
“I think we’re both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first, and I think we’re talking about months away, not years away, so it’s close,” he said.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to do it in a safe way. I think both of us will have people into space within 12 months,” added the British tycoon.
Going by what he said then, it shouldn’t be long before the world witnesses the advent of commercial passenger spaceflights – probably as early as sometime in 2019.