Branson’s Virgin Galactic reaches the edge of space

Company says it needs just ‘two or three’ more test flights to prove it can take tourists into space

The latest test flight by Virgin Galactic successfully rockets to space and back. Video: Reuters, Virgin Galactic

 

Richard Waters in Mojave

British tycoon Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic reached the edge of space for the first time on Thursday with a test flight that could mark a turning point in its long-delayed efforts to create a new space tourism industry.

The latest test of the company’s space plane took it to a height of more than 80km – the altitude at which space begins, according to the US military and Nasa. However, it still fell short of the 100km – or 62 miles – Karman line, the notional point that many others see as the limit of earth’s atmosphere.

Thursday’s flight over the Mojave desert in southern California was the fourth powered test since an accident in 2014 that left a Virgin Galactic pilot dead and set Sir Richard’s space hopes back by three years.

The craft, a SpaceShipTwo class vehicle, was carried to a height of more than 40,000ft by a specially designed plane, before its pilots ignites its rocket and steer it into a vertical climb towards space.

The company will probably need only “two or three” more powered tests to prove it is capable of taking paying customers into space, said George Whitesides, the company’s chief executive.

Virgin Galactic plans to follow up with cabin tests before moving ahead with a full commercial service – something it first hoped to achieve more than a decade ago.

Sir Richard is in a race with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin is also hoping to launch the first space tourism service. They could both be overtaken by Elon Musk, whose SpaceX hopes to become the first private company to put a human into space. SpaceX’s rockets resupply the International Space Station, which is five times higher than the limit of the Virgin Galactic craft.

Weightlessness

Many of the 600 people who have bought tickets from Virgin Galactic have waited since 2005 for the chance of a promised four minutes of weightlessness, paying $200,000 for a ticket – later raised to $250,000 (€220,000).

Only a handful of passengers opted for a refund after the 2014 crash, according to Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. But he added that “attrition” had shortened the waiting list down from a peak of about 700.

SpaceShipTwo’s rocket burned for 60 seconds during the latest test – approximately the length of time expected when commercial service begins, and enough to push it to 2.9 times the speed of sound. It reached an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7km), the company said, or nearly 20 miles higher than its previous highest test.

The craft is designed to fall back into the earth’s atmosphere, using a splayed tail system like a shuttlecock to control its re-entry, before gliding back to the ground. The tail boom, known as a “feather”, was responsible for the 2014 crash when a pilot mistakenly deployed the system too early in the flight, causing the craft to break up.

Todd Ericson, head of safety and testing, said Virgin Galactic had installed new controls to prevent the tail system being operated too soon. It had also adopted more stringent protocols for pilots, he added. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018