VSS Unity hits 50-mile barrier of suborbital space

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic finally did it. After a lot of missed deadlines and one deadly accident, Branson’s team made good on his promise to become the first private company to bring people to suborbital space by Christmas. Taking off from California’s Mojave Air & Space Port on Thursday, VSS Unity reached an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.72 kilometres), surpassing the 50-mile threshold that NASA and US Air Force designations officially recognise as space.

“We made it to space,” Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing partner, told a cheering crowd.

Branson, who plans to be the first passenger on VSS Unity, has been working on this project for more than a decade.

“We saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. How on Earth do I describe the feeling?” he said. “Today for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space.”

In addition to co-pilots Mark “Forger” Stuckey and Rick “CJ” Sturckow, VSS Unity also carried a test dummy and four research payloads from NASA, helping Virgin Galactic make some money on the flight along with providing enough weight to simulate what the load will be like with passengers onboard. About 600 people have paid US $200,000 to $250,000 to go into suborbital space with Virgin Galactic once its space tourism flights begin.

Branson hoped for a successful test flight long before now, but the programme had a series of setbacks, most notably a 2014 crash that killed one pilot and injured another. Branson said last month he expected VSS Unity to reach space by Christmas, and on the first day of the launch window, made good on that projection.

The internationally recognised Karman line separating Earth’s atmosphere and suborbital space is 100 km (62 miles), though recent research indicates that boundary might be closer to the height Virgin Galactic reached when VSS Unity — aka SpaceShipTwo — separated from shuttle WhiteKnightTwo and fired its rocket engine for 60 seconds, reaching suborbital space at nearly three times the speed of sound.

There was no word on when Branson would go up and when flights with paying customers would begin, but Branson is eager to get started.

“Space is not cheap,” he said. “I’ve personally invested about a billion dollars in this project, so having our first money coming back is a good feeling. … We’ve got to make this a profitable venture, and I think we can make it a profitable venture.”