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Virgin Galactic Takes Crew of 3 to Altitude of 55 Miles

SpaceShipTwo, built by British billionaire Richard Branson to carry tourists into space.

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The SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity passenger craft makes its final approach for a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft reached an altitude of more than 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) on Friday, carrying for the first time a passenger in addition to its two pilots.

SpaceShipTwo, built by British billionaire Richard Branson to carry tourists into space, launched from California’s Mojave desert and flew to an altitude of 55.87 miles (89.9 kms), the company said.

The US definition of space is anything over an altitude of 50 miles. The Virgin craft made it past that for the first time in December, reaching an altitude of 50.9 miles.

Branson announced with great fanfare at the time that it was the first time since NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011 that an American vessel had carried humans into space.

However, the Virgin craft still has not crossed the internationally accepted boundary between Earth’s outer atmosphere and space, known as the Karman Line, which is set at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kms).

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Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, with SpaceShipTwo passenger craft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

“SpaceShipTwo, welcome back to space,” wrote Virgin Galactic as it Tweeted updates throughout the event, without sending out any live footage.

The spacecraft travelled at a speed of Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound in its ascent, and landed without incident at the Mojave spaceport.

It is designed to carry six passengers, but test flights are years behind schedule in large part because of an accident that killed a test pilot in 2014.

Branson told AFP earlier this month that he hoped the test flights would be far enough ahead by July that he would be able to join a flight.

For the first time Friday, the flight carried a passenger, Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses, who will be in charge of training the company’s future space tourists.

To take off from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried by another larger plane, WhiteKnightTwo, which resembles a combination of two airplanes attached by their wing tips.

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The SpaceShipTwo passenger craft rockets away from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane above Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

When it is high enough, it releases the spaceship which then fires up its own rocket engine and ascends for roughly a minute into space.

At the apogee, its passengers float in zero-gravity for several minutes. It then descends and glides back to the landing strip.

Branson’s main rival is Blue Origin, created by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos told an audience in New York this week that his New Shepard suborbital vehicle would start flying people later this year and to a greater altitude than SpaceShipTwo.

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“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said, quoted by Space News.

New Shepard has already flown above the Karman Line, but not with people on board. (VOA)

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Virgin Galactic’s First Test Passenger Receives Commercial Astronaut Wings from US Aviation Regulator

"Commercial human space flight is now a reality,” says Wayne Monteith

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FILE - Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, with SpaceShipTwo passenger craft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic’s first test passenger received her commercial astronaut wings from the U.S. aviation regulator on Tuesday after flying on the company’s rocket plane to evaluate the customer experience in February.

Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, who is a former NASA engineer, became the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle when she joined pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci on SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity.

The wings were presented to the three-person crew at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado by the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space, Wayne Monteith.

“Commercial human space flight is now a reality,” he said.

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Navy Aviation Warfare Insignia. Wikimedia

The February test flight nudged Richard Branson’s space travel company closer to delivering suborbital flights for the more than 600 people who have paid Virgin Galactic about $80 million in deposits. Branson has said he hopes to be the first passenger on a commercial flight in 2019.

The 90-minute flight, during which passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000 — a price that the company said will increase before it falls.

Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are also in the space tourism race. Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket to space, but its trips have not yet carried humans.

SpaceX last year named Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as its first passenger on a voyage around the moon, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Moses, who as a NASA engineer worked on the assembly of the International Space Station, is designing a three-day training program for Virgin Galactic’s future space tourists.

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The wings were presented to the three-person crew at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado by the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space, Wayne Monteith. Wikimedia

“I gleaned a lot of firsthand information that we can roll into the design and then also into the training,” she said on her return to earth in Mojave, California, in February.

The passengers, some of whom have been signed up since 2004, will train in a mock-up cabin at New Mexico’s Spaceport America before their flights.

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Moses told Reuters she aims for customers to arrive in space “not wondering what noise they just heard or being surprised by the G they just felt.”

Virgin Galactic’s Branson will also receive the annual Space Achievement Award at the symposium in recognition of the company’s two crewed test flights, the first from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. (VOA)