Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasts to the edge of space

MOJAVE, Calif. — A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle program ended in 2011.

The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.

Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7 a.m. Pacific time (10 a.m. ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the takeoff along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert. After the rocket plane topped 50-mile altitude, reaching an apogee of 51.4 miles above earth, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

One of the pilots handed Branson a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged after the space ship landed safely after about an hour’s journey.

“Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world,” Branson said, adding he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers — including himself — by March 2019.

The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to more than 51 miles above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.

Virgin’s latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a US offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.

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