Space tourism could move one giant leap closer this week as Virgin Galactic expects to reach "space altitudes" for the first time.
Virgin Galactic's program created to kick off space tourism has just reached another milestone with a flight that nearly reached the edge of space. Competitors include Blue Origin - founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - and Elon Musk's SpaceX whose unmanned Falcon 9 rocket has brought supply to the International Space Station for NASA.
An exuberant Branson took the stage at the Mojave Air and Space Port here to congratulate the company and its employees for a successful test flight December 13 of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity, which reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers. It returned to Earth minutes later.
He also stated that, if all goes well, only a few more test flights would be needed before Virgin Galactic would be ready to shift operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the company plans to perform commercial flights.
That's above the 50-mile (80 km) boundary that NASA and the United States Air Force use when handing out astronaut wings, but below the more famous "Karman Line" at 62 miles (100 km) up. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.
How well the VSS Unity performs will depend on how long it burns the rocket motor; during the previous flight, the rocket motor burned for 42 seconds and helped the vehicle reach a peak altitude of 52Km. "How on Earth do I describe the feeling?" he said.
Along with the two test pilots on board, SpaceShipTwo was carrying four microgravity experiments selected by NASA, including the University of Central Florida's Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE.
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The two pilots will attempt to launch the craft on a supersonic flight to the edge of space for the first time.
In regards to the price of getting a ticket to space, Branson said he would like to see the price drop to around £30,000 ($40,000) or £38,000 ($50,000) over ten years.
Ultimately, the company aims to carry paying passengers on its spaceship, which is created to carry six people in addition to two pilots. Branson started Virgin Galactic in 2004. Virgin Galactic hopes that the VSS Unity will go much higher on today's flight and will fly high enough to reach suborbital space.
Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!"
"It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again", said Mr Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.
Virgin Galactic is eager to reach space after years of developing its space tourism rocket.