Virgin Galactic's founder, Sir Richard Branson, has been hoping to make space tourism a reality since 2008. While it has taken a little longer than the 18 months he had originally estimated, the company is getting increasingly closer to accomplishing its mission. On December 13, 2018, Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceliner, VSS Unity, made history with the longest rocket-powered flight when it soared to the edge of space, 51.4 miles (82 km) above sea level. On February 22, 2019, the aircraft repeated the feat, this time with its first passenger – the company's astronaut trainer Beth Moses - on board.
VSS Unity made the initial 8.5-mile ascent, to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, attached to aircraft carrier WhiteKnightTwo. The spacecraft, designed to carry six passengers and two pilots, was then released and expertly flown to an altitude of 55.87 miles (89.9 km) at a mind-boggling 2255 mph (3,629 km/hr), or three times the speed of sound, by Dave Mackay and Michael "Sooch" Masucci. Once there, the crew members spent a few minutes taking in the incredible "out of this world" views of Earth before gliding down and landing flawlessly at California's Mojave Airport, where a cheering crowd awaited them.
"The planned 42-second rocket burn took pilots and [the] spaceship through the Stratosphere and, at an apogee of 170,800 ft [52,000 m], into the Mesosphere for the first time," Virgin Galactic representatives said in the statement released following the successful flight.
Though the short, hour-long jaunt to space was thrilling for the entire crew, it was Moses – the world's first woman to fly on a private spacecraft – who had the most fun. Charged with the "difficult" task of evaluating customer experience, the astronaut trainer and microgravity expert was allowed to go untethered at apogee for a few minutes, while the pilots prepared to return to Earth. Moses began her assignment with a quick float to the window to admire the view below. After returning briefly to her seat to ensure the seat belt still worked, the former NASA employee drifted across the cabin and then back over to the windows, which have been designed to provide passengers with optimal views of our planet. Her final tests involved hovering along the ceiling, or what she describes as "flying like Spider-Man," and gliding over to the aircraft's rear.
"It was so clear!" Moses says. "It was crystal, crystal clear — just super, super, super high def[inition]. And interestingly, you could sort of see ice crystals right out the window, and then the beautiful curvature of the Earth. It was so black in space and so clear and bright, especially with snow in the mountains. You could see the Pacific Ocean, see the southwestern United States. I felt like I was infinitely high. It was just beautiful. It was the most amazing thing."
Though the date of Virgin Galactic's commercial flight to space has yet to be announced, the company has already received deposits from more than 600 space tourists, each willing to pay the astronomical sum of $250,000 for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Among them is Mr. Branson, who has announced he intends to make the journey on July 24, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The entrepreneur says, "The moon landing is what inspired me to wish to go to space. I saw it on a black-and-white television set when I was very young, and this year is the 50th anniversary, so it's a very great year to celebrate."
Resources: Virginatlantic.com, Space.com, Vox.com