Virgin Galactic’s Branson gets closer to space

Bekah Wright

Recently, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, spoke with Yahoo! Travel’s Five Miles Up column about the destination of his dream trip. “Into space,” he said. “Virgin Galactic is almost there." Monday, Branson’s dream came one step closer to being realized when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) made history, completing its first rocket-powered flight.

Catching up with Yahoo! Travel, Branson shared his reaction. “This is a momentous day, and the single most important flight test to date for our program,” he said. “It marks the start of the phase of testing that will demonstrate our vehicle’s ability to go to space. It’s a tremendous achievement and a testament to the hard work and meticulous preparation by everyone involved.”

After what Branson’s termed the “supersonic success” of Monday’s flight, Virgin Galactic now enters the final phase of vehicle testing before commercial service begins from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s fleet is designed to carry six customers on suborbital space flights, during which passengers will have out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experiences and black sky views from space.

So when might the 580 people who’ve made more than $70 million in deposits for a seat aboard the world’s first commercial spaceline, which is co-owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, expect to take off? At the test site, Branson set “a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end.” In queue for seats will be the Branson family.

“Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get onboard this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space and I’m delighted that today’s milestone brings that day much closer,” Branson told Yahoo! Travel.

For now, Branson’s savoring the day’s victory. “What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness the occasion.”

Takeoff occurred from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., under the supervision of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. Piloting SS2 were Scaled test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury. SS2 mated with WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft/mother ship, which was under the controls of Scaled pilots Dave Mackay, Clint Nichols and Brian Maisler.

Upon reaching 47,000 feet, SS2 was released from WK2. The pilot crew did a system’s check, then manually triggered the firing of the rocket motor, main oxidizer valve and igniters. SS2 propelled to 55,000 feet, reaching the supersonic speed of Mach 1.2. Ten minutes later, SS2 landed in Mojave.