The two pilots of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo earned their commercial astronaut wings on Thursday by firing the plane’s rocket for 60 seconds after being dropped from a larger airplane and launching to the boundary of space 51 miles above Earth’s surface.

The pilots re-entered the atmosphere at Mach 2.5 and landed back where their flight began in Mojave, California, proving the plane could reach space. Virgin Galactic said it will analyze the results to plan future tests aimed at making it safe enough to carry up to six paying customers on suborbital flights where they can experience microgravity and see breathtaking views of Earth. 

Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson attended the air launch to space in Mojave of the rocket-powered plane, called the VSS Unity, and said in a press release the event gave him a feeling of “joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.”

“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,” Branson said.

Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018 (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

As during the three previous powered test flights, a mothership airplane named WhiteKnightTwo lifted off from a runway while carrying SpaceShipTwo. The VSS Unity pilots ignited its rocket engine shortly after being dropped by WhiteKnightTwo at around 45,000 feet.

VSS Unity pilots Mark Stuckey and C.J. Sturckow will receive commercial astronaut wings during a ceremony next year, FAA Associate Administrator Bailey Edwards announced in a press release after the launch. The U.S. government often classifies 50 miles from the surface as the boundary of space. Sturckow already has NASA astronaut wings from flying Space Shuttle missions.

“If you are looking for the next big thing, commercial space is it,” Edwards said. “We’re streamlining regulations to make these launches a daily occurrence.”

Virgin Galactic is not alone in viewing space tourism as a ground floor to begin generating revenue for human spaceflight. Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, also plans to launch tourists and research payloads on suborbital flights. The FAA has sought advice from space companies about how to preserve safety while making it easier to reserve air space for launches and to speed up the process for launch licenses.

Humans have not launched into space from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. Virgin Galactic has not sent a vehicle into space since 2004 when the pilots of the experimental SpaceShipOne made the first manned private spaceflight and earned the first FAA commercial astronaut wings.

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