For the more than 500 space tourists who have signed up for a trip on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Monday was a milestone: the day the spaceship that will be carrying them aloft made its first powered flight and broke the sound barrier for its first time.
“We will be going to space at the end of this year,” Branson said in a telephone interview after the test flight over Mojave, Calif. Or, he added, possibly in the first quarter of next year. He and his children are to be passengers on that first flight.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic 81⁄2 years ago, capitalizing on the success of the first privately financed spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, to carry people above an altitude of 62 miles, considered the edge of outer space. SpaceShipOne had only two seats, and, in its flights, carried only the pilot. Branson hired Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne’s designer, and Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, to build a larger version called SpaceShipTwo with seats for six passengers, each of whom would pay $200,000 to reach space. He predicted that commercial flights would begin in 2007.
That goal was delayed by technological challenges, including an explosion during a propulsion test at Scaled Composites in 2007 that killed three workers.
Over the past two and a half years, SpaceShipTwo has made a series of tests as a glider. On Monday morning, with Branson among the spectators, a carrier aircraft lofted SpaceShipTwo to a height of 47,000 feet before letting it go. This time, it did more than glide.
More test flights will follow as SpaceShipTwo goes faster and higher before the start of commercial operations, which will be launched from Spaceport America outside Las Cruces, N.M. Virgin Galactic currently has 560 ticket holders.