Virgin Galactic flew its space plane past the edge of space Friday morning on its quest to eventually fly paying passengers there, a milestone that company founder Richard Branson said could come as early as this year.
The flight came two months after Virgin Galactic hit an altitude of 51.4 miles, reaching space for the first time, a historic milestone for which its pilots were awarded astronaut wings by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The astronauts described the flight as an early step towards making space available to those who aren't professional astronauts.
"For the three of us today this was the fulfilment of lifelong ambitions, but paradoxically is also just the beginning of an adventure which we can't wait to share with thousands of others," chief pilot Dave Mackay said in a statement after the flight.
Virgin Galactic tweeted "SpaceShipTwo, welcome back to space" at 8:55 a.m. Pacific time, and the company later reported its craft reached an apogee of 55.87 miles, or 295,007 feet.
The launch came as the company looked to further test the outer limits of the space plane before it starts flying the hundreds of tourists who have signed up to pay as much as US$250,000 ($365,000) a ticket.
Virgin Galactic has yet to hit what's known as the Karman line, the 62-mile, or 100-kilometer boundary that many consider to be the edge of space. In comments this week, Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin space venture also intends to fly tourists on suborbital trips to space, took a swipe at his competitor. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
"One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman line," Bezos said at an event in New York, according to SpaceNews.
Blue Origin, which has not announced how much it would charge its passengers, would fly above 62 miles, he said, "because we didn't want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you're an astronaut or not."
Virgin Galactic officials have repeatedly pointed to the fact that the FAA and other federal government agencies have defined space as beginning at 50 miles, and in a statement late last year, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said the company "has always respected this recognition and will follow the same."
SpaceShipTwo, as the rocket plane is known, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at about 8 a.m. Pacific time, tethered to the belly of a mother ship, known as WhiteKnightTwo. The vehicles flew to an altitude of about 40,000 feet before the spacecraft was dropped and the pilot hit the ignition, kick-starting the motor and sending the spacecraft soaring through the atmosphere.
At the controls were Virgin Galactic's chief pilot, Dave Mackay, a former Royal Air Force pilot, and Michael "Sooch" Masucci, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel and U-2 and F-16 pilot.
The company announced after takeoff that a third crew member was aboard the spacecraft: Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor and an "expert micro-gravity researcher." The company said in a tweet that Moses "will provide human validation for the data we collect, including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back."
Although it was not the company's first mission to space, it was a day of firsts for the budding commercial spaceflight industry: Moses was the first person to floated weightlessly in space without restraints aboard a commercial spaceship; the first time a non-pilot went to space on a commercial spaceship; and it was the first commercial spacecraft to carry three people to outer space.
The flight, delayed after high winds on Wednesday, was another key step in the development of the spacecraft company, officials said.
"Although we passed a major milestone in December, we still have a way to go in testing the many factors that can affect a flight," Virgin said in a statement before the mission. "So, for this flight, we will be expanding the envelope to gather new and vital data essential to future tests and operations, including vehicle center of gravity."
The flight was also to test certain aspects of the crew cabin, where the passengers would have a few minutes to float around weightlessly, enjoying views of space and the Earth from above.
"Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves," Branson said in a press advisory sent out soon after the flight.
"The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet."