Virgin Galactic aims 'to reach space' on test flight

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic’s first two astronauts

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic’s first two astronauts

The two test pilots- Mark "Forger" Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick "CJ" Sturckow - will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, said Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards.

Virgin Galactic launched the fourth test of its SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert Thursday, sending the spacecraft closer to space than ever before.

"I hope we go to space today", he said ahead of liftoff.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity is released from the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft during a gliding test for SpaceShipTwo near Mojave, Calif., on Jan.11, 2018.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo takes off for a suborbital test flight on December 13, 2018, in Mojave, Calif.

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the USA military.

The aircraft reached a staggering altitude of 271,268ft after being released by its carrier plane at 43,000ft.

The VSS Unity reached a top speed of over 1,530 miles per hour, or beyond Mach 2. "It's very similar to the 1920s with commercial flights across the Atlantic".

Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018
Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018

"Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it", the company said. Virgin Galactic's development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

"Our team's biggest priority is to use meticulous planning and preparation to ensure that stages are dealt with safety, and that every outcome informs and improves future performance", Virgin Galactic continued.

The company is squared up to compete directly with Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000 to offer suborbital tourism flights.

Despite the risks, Whitesides said he and the company were looking forward to the potential milestone of this upcoming test flight.

More than 600 people from 50 countries have reserved places to fly with Virgin Galactic when all testing has been completed. Some have waited over a decade for their shot. But Whitesides cited new research that favors the lower altitude and said that as a US company it will use the USA standard.

After that, he said, they'll start putting into space "the hundreds of astronauts" who have signed up for the journey.

The US space agency paid Virgin Galactic to fly four space science and technology experiments on the VSS Unity, "making this Virgin Galactic's first revenue generating flight", the company added.

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