Once only imagined in fiction, commercial travel to space just got another step closer to reality. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity completed a successful maiden flight on the edge of space, reaching 51.4 miles (approximately 82.7 kilometers) altitude on December 13, 2018. The flight, shown in a video below, marked more than one first time achievement.

“Unity, Welcome to Space,” Virgin Galactic Mission Control affirms  as VSS Unity suborbital spaceliner, launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and carrying two test pilots, now astronauts, Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow, coasts through the black sky.

 

 

 

The flight is “the very first time” that a crewed vehicle built for commercial passenger service has reached space. But there other milestones have been achieved as well:

  • The first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011;
  • The first Virgin Galactic’s revenue generating flight, as NASA Flight Opportunities Program used VSS Unity for four space science and technology experiments;
  • Frederick Sturckow is to become the only person to have been awarded both NASA and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)wings. The news comes in relation to the FAA’s announcement that Sturckow and Stucky are going to be awarded with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings in early 2019.

“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space,” Richard Branson said in a statement by the company. “Today we completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings. Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good. 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 the Earth and the cosmos […]”.

Talking about the rocket motor burn, this time it lasted for 60 seconds, allowing VSS Unity to reach a maximum velocity of Mach 2.9 - that is almost three times the speed of sound, as Virgin Galactic points out.

Transforming commercial space operations

The flight was praised not only for its technological achievement, but more importantly, for its significance and contribution to the transformation of the commercial space industry.

“What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century’s defining industries,” said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company. “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. New enterprises are being created which will become hugely valuable, while enabling humanity to better manage some of its greatest future challenges. […]”.

Similarly, the flight was also praised by the FAA. “If you’re looking for the next big thing, commercial space is it,” Bailey Edwards, FAA Assistant Administrator said. “For us, we want to assure you that the FAA is committed to making sure that commercial space is safe. We’re streamlining regulations to make these launches a daily occurrence.  Like the early days of aviation, these commercial space flights take grit and innovation—the very attributes it takes to blaze a trail for generations to follow”.

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully conducted supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity passenger rocket on April 5, 2018, three years after the fatal crash of VSS Enterprise in 2014.