Virgin Galactic completed its first crewed space flight taking off from Spaceport America New Mexico yesterday. Aboard the craft, were six people, including billionaire Sir Richard Branson, two pilots and three Virgin Galactic employees – all of which now have become astronauts*. The time between take-off and return to earth was a little over an hour, and SpaceShipTwo as part of the Unity 22 mission reached a maximum altitude of 53.4 miles.
Branson held a press conference shortly after his pioneering space flight, which he called the "experience of a lifetime". He told press conference attendees that "I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space," adding that the experience was "magical".
We must not forget that this was a test flight for the space tourism industry, with commercial flights (tickets costing up to $250,000) scheduled to begin next year. Apparently 600 seats have already been pre-booked, and passengers will typically experience 5 minutes of weightless floating around the cabin time, as well as seeing the sky turn black and the Earth's horizon curving away.
Whether 53.4 miles high is space or not is the subject of some debate. NASA reckons space begins at an altitude of 50 miles, but the internationally recognised frontier between Earth atmosphere and space is called the Kármán line and is 62 miles up. On Friday, the Blue Origin space company (owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) Tweeted a jibe at Virgin Galactic's Unity vehicle, suggesting that any astronauts who have been on this flight would need an asterisk next to that qualification, as they hadn't gone beyond the Kármán line. However, following the successful SpaceShipTwo journey, Bezos sent congratulations.
Left: SpaceShipTwo goes vertical after undocking. Right: Amazon's Tweet about the impending Unity 22 mission
Blue Origin looks set to launch soon, going to start flying passengers soon (six at a time) in the New Shepard rocket which takes off vertically, with passengers returning in a parachuting capsule. Elon Musk is preparing a similar space tourism venture, SpaceX. Musk travelled to New Mexico to offer support to Branson yesterday.
If you are interested in a space flight but don't have the funds set aside right now, you can wait for the HEXUS competition in 2077*, or enter the Virgin and Omaze sweepstakes which is offering two seats aboard "one of the first" commercial spaceflights.