A Virgin Galactic rocket plane intended for space tourism managed for the first time ever yesterday to reach the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. According to British billionaire Richard Branson it is now only a matter of months before the first tourist flies into space.
Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and about 600 other ordinary - albeit quite rich - mortals are getting a step closer to a journey into space ever since yesterday.
They’ve all paid some 250,000 dollars years ago to Virgin Galactic, the commercial space company which is part of the Virgin Group of flamboyant billionaire Richard Branson.
Few believed at the time he could make it work, but at this point it would be more surprising if it did not happen.
Yesterday Virgin Galactic performed a successful fourth test with SpaceShipTwo.
Three times speed of sound
The plane reached a height of 82.7 kilometers. According to CEO George Whitesides, that means, using the 80-kilometer limit that the American aviation authority approves, the plane has thus reached space. However, 100 kilometers is a wider accepted border.
“Anyway, yesterday was an important day for space tourism, a day we've been waiting for for a long time," Mr Whitesides said. On board SpaceShipTwo, apart from two experienced pilots, there were dummies and cargo to simulate the weight of six space tourists.
In a previous test, the rocket had burned for 41 seconds, for a maximum height of 50 kilometers. Now the pilots allowed themselves to propel for 60 seconds until they traveled almost three times as fast as the sound.
For a short moment, they were weightless, before returning safely to the atmosphere.
The data collected at higher altitude and at higher speed should enable Virgin Galactic to further develop their commercial spacecraft. "This is an unlikely feeling: joy, relief and great hope for what's coming," says Richard Branson. "We are now working on the remaining part of our test program. We are going to let the rocket engine burn even longer to fly even faster and higher, so that we can give thousands of private astronauts a new view of our planet and the cosmos."
18 Tourists per week
Safety has the highest priority in those plans and that is no unnecessary luxury: in 2007, three engineers from another company died when they were testing a system for the spacecraft. In a test flight similar to yesterday's, a pilot died in 2014 when SpaceShipTwo exploded.
Mr Whitesides: "We think a lot about the possible risks and we realize that everything has to be safe. But if we do not take any risks, we can not make any progress either."
When exactly the first tourist will go into space is still unknown but recently Branson said that he expects himself to become a space tourist within a few months, "not within a few years."
The plan is to bring his children Holly and Sam, in their thirties, with him.
"Soon after, the first space passengers will follow."
The plan is to organize one flight a week. In the longer term, additional aircraft will make it possible to organize three flights a week, or some 18 space tourists.
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