Virgin Galactic reaches edge of space in historic flight

By Clyde Hughes

Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Virgin Galactic made history Thursday by flying to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, taking its boldest step yet in space tourism.

The company's rocket-powered VSS Unity took off from its Mojave Air & Space Port early Thursday. Its SpaceShipTwo separated from the WhiteKnightTwo twin-fuselage carrier aircraft and reached a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles before returning to Earth.


NASA recognizes the 50-mile mark as the edge of space.

The test flight marked a major bounce back for Virgin Galactic, which saw pilot Michael Alsbury die and fellow pilot Peter Siebold injured four years ago when the VSS Enterprise broke apart in a failed test flight that put the entire project in jeopardy.

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"Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it," Virgin Galactic said in a report by CNN. "There is no guarantee that everything will work perfectly first time and, like all programs seeking to take bold steps, we will inevitably have times when things don't go as planned."

The flight also marked the Virgin Galactic's first mission for NASA, which took four of the space agency's experiments on Thursday's flight, in its payload.


"The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting," Ryan Dibley, flight ppportunities campaign manager at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center, said in a statement before the flight.

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"Inexpensive access to suborbital space greatly benefits the technology research and broader spaceflight communities."

Virgin Galactic differs from other private efforts like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin by using a rocket-powered space plane to leave the Earth's atmosphere -- instead of vertical rockets that NASA and other space agencies used for decades.

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