SS2 ignition
SpaceShipTwo ignites its rocket motor shortly after release from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft Dec. 13 in the skies above Mojave, California. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Updated 12:40 p.m. Eastern with statements.

MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic achieved a long-awaited milestone Dec. 13 when its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle performed its highest test flight to date, exceeding one altitude often used as the boundary of space.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft carrying SpaceShipTwo took off from Mojave Air and Space Port here at 10:11 a.m. Eastern. The aircraft released the SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named VSS Unity, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern at an altitude of about 13,100 meters.

With pilots Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow at the controls, SpaceShipTwo fired its hybrid rocket motor for 60 seconds. The vehicle reached a peak altitude of 83 kilometers and top speed of Mach 2.9 before gliding back to a safe landing here at 11:11 a.m. Eastern.

That altitude exceeds the boundary of 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers, used by U.S. government agencies for awarding astronaut wings. Bailey Edwards, FAA associate administrator for policy, international affairs and environment said in post-flight remarks that Stucky and Sturckow would receive FAA commercial astronaut wings from the agency in a future ceremony. Sturckow already has NASA astronaut wings from four shuttle flights.

The flight is the first crewed commercial suborbital spaceflight since the final flight of SpaceShipOne in October 2004 that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. It’s also the first human spaceflight of any kind by an American vehicle since the final flight of the space shuttle in July 2011.

“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, after the flight. “Today we showed that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”

“It was really amazing,” Stucky said in comments after the flight. “To actually get out there and have the motor shut down and go, ‘Huh, we’re going to space’ and see the dark sky was great. Everything just worked great.”

“It feels amazing. It’s still settling in,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in an interview after the flight. The 60-second burn was several seconds longer than Whitesides said the day before would likely be the maximum burn time. “When [the motor] burned that long, we knew that we had made it to space.”

Branson et al.
Richard Branson (second from left) speaks art post-flight ceremonies Dec. 13 at Mojave Air and Space Port with (from left) Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and pilots Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Worth the wait

Besides the two pilots on board, VSS Unity carried four technology demonstration payloads provided by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which arranges flights on suborbital rockets, high-altitude balloons and airplanes flying reduced gravity trajectories. The payloads include experiments studying dust collisions in microgravity, multi-phase flow systems, systems for plant growth and vibration isolation systems.

The payloads also allow Virgin Galactic to more closely simulate the mass of a typical flight, when the vehicle carries six spaceflight participants in addition to the two pilots, while providing another milestone for the company. “Today, we completed our first revenue-generating flight,” Branson said.

Virgin Galactic, when it announced its plans to develop a vehicle based on SpaceShipOne in September 2004, originally anticipated beginning flights a decade ago. Development delays, exacerbated by the October 2014 test flight accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury, pushed back those plans.

“We have worked many, many long hours and days to get our team as ready as we can be for this point,” Whitesides said Dec. 12. “It’s a day we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Virgin Galactic expects to move ahead with full-duration burns of the SpaceShipTwo motor, which would be about 60 seconds. “If this flight is relatively nominal or successful, then we would be, I think, in a position over the next couple of flights to potentially go to a full-duration flight,” Whitesides said prior to this flight.

The company hasn’t set a schedule for beginning commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, but is laying the groundwork for increased commercial operations. Two new SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction by The Spaceship Company, the Virgin-owned company responsible for building the vehicles.

The fuselages, wings and other elements of both vehicles are taking shape. “We’re about a year away from completing the build of the next spaceship,” said Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, Dec. 12. The other vehicle is about three to six months behind.

The focus immediate after the flight, though, was less on those future plans than on the long-awaited achievement in the skies above the spaceport. “Today, as I stood among this truly remarkable group of people, all of us, with our eyes on the skies, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled,” Branson said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...