For the first time since 2011, a commercial flight left Earth long enough to touch the edge of space. According to the Independent, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, made the journey from 43,000 feet to 271,000 feet alone after its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, released it for a solo flight. The ship was piloted by NASA astronaut Frederick Sturckow and commercial pilot Mark Stucky.
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Branson, attended the momentous launch with his son. Before the flight officially reached its intended goal, Branson told the Independent: “I’m not supposed to say this, but hopefully we will go to space today. Hopefully, we’ll have a bit of magic in the next couple of hours.”
Branson was spotted with tears in his eyes as his dream came true. This was a major push forward after the company’s deadly test flight back in 2014.
Newly confident, Branson is now pledging that space tourism will be available “within months, not years.” This is good news for celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have been waiting a long time to exchange their $250,000 deposits for a taste of space travel.
CNet was quick to point out that this successful launch, which was 14 years in the making, rocketed Virgin Galactic past its biggest competitors, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Branson may only have bragging rights for a few weeks, though, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX is scheduled to travel to the International Space Station on January 17.
Per CNet, SpaceX is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This has given SpaceX the advantage of having their spaceship, the Crew Dragon, tested by NASA’s engineers. Virgin Galactic has not taken this step, but Branson is adamant that safety is the company’s first priority.
SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space.— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
Despite working closely with SpaceX, NASA wasn’t absent on today’s Virgin Galactic flight. NASA posted that SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, was equipped with four experiments that will provide the space agency with valuable data. Perhaps the most exciting of these experiments is the Microgravity Multi-Phase Flow Experiment for Suborbital Testing. Put simply, this is a test of technology that might bring deep space hibernation out of science fiction movies and into the real world.
SpaceShipTwo looking back on Spaceship Earth ???? pic.twitter.com/ynr31mKzzf— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
Science 2.0 indicates that the definition of reaching space varies around the world. In the U.S., the edge of space is marked at 264,000 feet, which gives Virgin Galactic a clearance of 7,000 feet. However, the international standard for the edge of space is 380,000 feet, leaving the commercial spaceship 109,000 feet shy of its goal. The company is calling it a success either way, based on two facts: SpaceShipTwo did surpass the U.S. standards for touching the edge of space, and the commercial spaceship soared higher than any of its competitors’ achievements to date.