Spaceliners are officially a thing. Shortly after 10 am today, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, detached from its mother ship, Eve, and blasted above the 50-mile line NASA and the U.S. Air Force use as a marker for awarding astronaut wings. The milestone makes Virgin Galactic not only the first commercial spaceline, but also the first company to launch a human spaceflight from U.S. soil since NASA retired the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
Mark Stucky and Frederick C.J. Sturckow piloted the six-passenger craft 51.4 miles above California’s Mojave Desert, reaching Mach 2.9 – nearly three times the speed of sound – while its rocket motor burned for 60 seconds. For the supersonic descent, the pilots used Unity’s “feathered” re-entry configuration to slow the spaceship before gliding back to Mojave Air and Space Port.
“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers reached space,” said Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who was on hand for the event. “We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn 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.”
In recognition of the event, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it will award Stucky and Sturckow commercial astronaut wings in Washington, D.C., shortly after the New Year. This was Unity’s fourth powered test flight; its previous three saw the spaceship climb to 16, 21.7, and 32.3 miles altitude. Virgin Galactic is currently in its final test-flight stage before moving operations to its home base at Spaceport America outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico to prepare for flying tourists into space.