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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo reaches (edge of) space for first time

December 13, 2018

— A research pilot and a former NASA astronaut flew a private spacecraft on a rocket-powered test flight on Thursday (Dec. 13), reaching space for the first time — at least by one definition.

Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow piloted Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo "Unity" on a suborbital spaceflight that reached 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) above Earth, surpassing the 50-mile threshold that the U.S. Air Force has historically used to award astronaut wings to its pilots.

NASA and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the latter the ruling body on world air sports, currently considers the Kármán line at 62 miles (100 km) as the start of space.

Unity's altitude was high enough, though, for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which announced soon after the flight had landed that it will present Stucky and Sturckow with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony to be held in Washington DC early next year. Sturckow, as a four-time space shuttle pilot and commander, will become the only person to date to be recognized by both NASA and the FAA as an astronaut.

"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space," said Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, in a statement. "Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good."

"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," said Branson.

Thursday's test flight began soon after 4 a.m. PST (7 a.m. EST or 1200 GMT) as Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, the "VMS Eve," took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California with the "VSS Unity" mounted below it. It was the 261st flight for the mothership and 15th for the spacecraft (the fourth in powered flight).

The two piloted vehicles, flying as one, climbed to an altitude of about 43,000 feet (13,100 meters), when SpaceShipTwo dropped away.

"Release, release, release! SpaceShipTwo is flying free, having separated cleanly from its mothership WhiteKnightTwo," Virgin Galactic reported on Twitter.

SpaceShipTwo reaches space. Click to enlarge and view in a new window. (Virgin Galactic)

Less than a minute later, at 5 a.m. PST (1300 GMT), Stucky, flying as the pilot in command, ignited Unity's rocket engine. He and Sturckow accelerated to 2.9 times the speed of sound, or Mach 2.9, climbing skyward. The engine, as planned, cut off after 60 seconds, but the vehicle continued to coast higher.

"SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space," tweeted Virgin Galactic, as the craft reached 50 miles (80 km) altitude.

Floating weightless, Stucky and Sturckow were treated to a view of the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space while preparing Unity for its return to Earth. The pilots commanded the vehicle's unique tail booms to raise into the "feathered" position, setting up their re-entry.

Less than 15 minutes later, after gliding back through the atmosphere and on the way down, performing a "victory roll," Unity touched down, safely returning Stucky and Sturckow to the Mojave runway.

"Wheel stop, SpaceShipTwo. Welcome back to Earth," Virgin Galactic tweeted.

Thursday's flight advanced the company for the first time beyond where it was in its testing when the first SpaceShipTwo, "Enterprise," broke apart in flight in October 2014. The accident, which was attributed to operator error, claimed the life of the flight's co-pilot.

In addition to making it into space, Thursday's flight was also Virgin Galactic's first revenue generating flight. NASA's Flight Opportunities Program paid the company to fly four space science and technology experiments, including a study on the behavior of dust particles on planetary surfaces and a system to separate gas and liquid in microgravity.

"What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the 21st century's defining industries," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, the latter the company that built Unity. "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."

Virgin Galactic is planning to fly passengers, having already received hundreds of paid reservations. But more testing is needed before those spaceflights can begin.

"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 Earth and the cosmos," stated Branson.


View out of the forward windows of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first spaceflight from 51 miles (83 km) above Earth on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo mothership, the VMS Eve, takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Dec. 13, 2018, carrying SpaceShipTwo for its first spaceflight. (Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rockets skyward on its way to reaching space for the first time on Dec. 13, 2018. (Virgin Galactic/ & Trumbull Studios)

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson with the company's first two astronauts: CJ Sturckow and Mark Stucky. (Virgin Galactic)

The view from 51 miles (83 kilometers) during Virgin Galactic's first spaceflight with SpaceShipTwo Unity on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Virgin Galactic)

Pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow are seen after landing Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity from space. (Virgin Galactic)

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