Stucky and Sturckow
Mark Stucky (left) and C.J. Sturckow walk away from SpaceShipTwo after landing the suborbital spaceplane Dec. 13. The two will receive FAA commercial astronaut wings for flying to an altitude above 80 kilometers. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Quasar Media 2018

LANCASTER, Calif. — While some question whether Virgin Galactic’s latest SpaceShipTwo test flight actually went into space, a number of government officials and industry organizations have few doubts that it did.

The company’s second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, flew its highest and fastest test flight to date Dec. 13 in the skies above the Mojave Air and Space Port, reaching a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers. That is above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings, but below the 100-kilometer Karman Line that has been widely, if unofficially, used as the demarcation of space.

The successful test flight prompted a congratulatory tweet from Vice President Mike Pence, who called the flight “the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years.” The last American crewed spacecraft of any kind to reach space was the final flight of the space shuttle in July 2011.

Congrats @virgingalactic for sending your first astronauts to space today aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years! Under @POTUS and w/ our commercial partners, we are restoring America’s proud legacy of leadership in space!

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) December 13, 2018

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also offered similar praise. “Congratulations to @virgingalactic on the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle!” he tweeted.

Congratulations to @virgingalactic on the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle!

— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 13, 2018

The flight was licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. “We commend Virgin Galactic’s successful test flight and return to space,” Dan Elwell, acting administrator of the FAA, said in a statement after the flight. “We are pleased that Virgin Galactic is among the many pioneers of space flight helping write a new chapter in aerospace history.”

Because the flight exceeded an altitude of 50 miles, the pilots of SpaceShipTwo, Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow, are eligible to receive commercial astronaut wings from the FAA. Only two such wings have bene awarded to date, to Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who flew Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne on suborbital spaceflights in 2004, including the two that won the Ansari X Prize. Sturckow already has NASA astronaut wings from his career at the agency, where he flew on four shuttle missions.

Bailey Edwards, FAA associate administrator for policy, international affairs and environment, confirmed after the flight that both Stucky and Sturckow would receive FAA astronaut wings as well. In a speech, he invited the two, along with Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides and founder Richard Branson, to Washington for an event “in the new year” to formally receive the wings.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group whose members include Virgin Galactic, complemented Virgin Galactic for launching SpaceShipTwo “into space for the first time.”

“Today’s successful suborbital flight by SpaceShipTwo marks a major milestone for Virgin Galactic, as they take a step closer towards regular commercial launch operations,” Taber MacCallum, chairman of the organization said in a Dec. 13 statement. “CSF applauds George Whitesides and the entire Virgin Galactic and The SpaceShip Company team on today’s accomplishment, as it joins a growing number of commercial space companies that are or will soon be providing cost-effective and frequent access to suborbital space for humans and research payloads.”

The X Prize Foundation, whose prize competition laid the groundwork for SpaceShipTwo, also weighed in. “We are now much closer to the day when private space travel will be accessible, with a generation of people soon able to view Earth through a different lens,” said Anousheh Ansari, chief executive of the foundation.

Ansari’s family provided the money to purchase an insurance policy that funded the prize purse, and she later flew in space herself as a commercial spaceflight participant on a 2006 flight to the International Space Station. “This has been my life-long passion and the impetus for my family to support the Ansari X Prize,” she said of that vision of people seeing the Earth from space. “Today’s flight was another giant leap toward this goal.”

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...